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Wi-Fi bins banned from London's streets

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Electronic BINS in the heart of London must stop tracking hundreds of thousands of passing smartphones, officials have demanded.


A dozen or so high-tech rubbish cans - which display adverts and information on built-in flat-screens and are dotted around the capital's financial district's pavements - were set up to collect data from nearby phones.

The recycling bins, operated by Renew London, used Wi-Fi networking to identify devices using their individual MAC addresses, effectively handing over the proximity, speed and manufacturer of the gizmos. MAC addresses are unique to each network interface out there, although they can be easily altered by software if one is in the know; the addresses also reveal the maker of the networking chipset.

 

The company said it used these so-called bin-based ORBs to silently detect 4,009,676 devices in one week, although that really amounts to 530,000 unique phones.

Renew, which said the collected data was "anonymised" before it was analysed, hoped to use this technology to track footfall in shopping areas and perhaps even show tailored adverts to people as they walked by the bins.

But the first pilot testing the Orb system has now been cancelled after The City of London Corporation, which oversees the centre of the Big Smoke, pulled the plug. The authority only found out about the trial when journalists got hold of the study, a source told The Register. A report has also been made to privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner.

A spokesman for the corporation 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.

"This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought. In the meantime data collection – even if it is anonymised - needs to stop."

Adapted from theregister.co.uk website article 12th August 2013

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