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London’s smartphone-tracking bins banned

City of London Corporation has reported the incident to the ICO.

A trial of bins that collect data from passing smartphones has been halted after public outcry over the invasive nature of the technology.

The bins were retro-fitted with data capturing devices called Orb that have been devised and distributed by UK start-up Renew.

The smart bins were initially rolled out in the City of London ahead of the 2012 Olympics, however their true nature was apparently unknown until mid-August 2013.

The device sniffs out the MAC address of a passing smartphone and logs that data as well as proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer. According to Renew 4,009,676 devices have been captured with over 530,000 being unique.

The information acquired by the bins could allow advertisers to track an individual's phone and serve them a tailor-made ad. The data could allow a shop to be notified if a customer started buying from a rival and allow that shop to target special offers to the customer when they pass a smart bin.

However, according to a source speaking to The Register, the City of London Corporation the local authority that governs that area of Greater London did not know what the Orbs were used for until reports appeared in the press.

A Corporation spokesperson said: "We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner's Office. Irrespective of what's technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public."

Renew's CEO Kaveh Memari responded the same day, stating the initial trials had ceased and any future trials would "not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology".

IT Pro contacted Renew to ask what would be done with the data collected and for a response to the allegations the City of London Corporation was not fully informed of the Orbs' use and method of operation, however no response had been received at the time of publication.

  • This article was originally published on 12 August and was updated on 4 September to reflect the subsequent banning of the bins.
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