Big Brother in a Trash Bin?

We’ve all known that hidden cameras are situated on street corners and grocery stores, and you may have heard about clothing store mannequins ‘watching’ the moves of shoppers in California, but did you know that some people are being tracked by trash cans? In London, an advertising firm has been recently ordered to immediately cease the use of a system of high-tech trash cans that have the ability to track people as they walk through the financial district in the city. This is just another example of how far the government and companies will go to pinpoint your every move, as well as breach your personal privacy.

The trash cans have been dubbed a ‘space-age’ contraption that are equipped with advanced technology that taps into and collects data from the mobile devices that people carry around as they stroll about Square Mile, which is located in the capital. Interestingly, the bins are also bomb-proof. The containers are produced by a supplier called Renew, and are marketed under the name Renew Pod bins. According to a press release from the company, the bins possess a technology that “detects smartphones by proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer.”

The City of London Corp., which plays an important role in exercising local government authority in the financial district has made a statement that data collection (even if it supposedly keeps the people’s identity anonymous) needs to end. The corporation requested that Renew stops gathering data, and has referred the case to the Information Commissioner’s Office – an independent body established by the United Kingdom government as a way to enforce and protect data privacy.

The Chief Executive Officer for Renew, Kaveh Memari, replied that he understands why people have reacted to the ‘Orb’ technology in the Renew bins, but dismissed the technology as a ‘glorified counter’ of people. Memari says that the bins are in a trial phase, where only “a limited number of the pods have been testing and collecting anonymized and aggregated MAC addresses from the street.” He went on to say that one report is sent every three minutes from the pod, which relays the total footfall data from the sites.

Memari likened the entire process to a website, which tells how many hits and repeat visitors a site has had. He gave assurances that the information collected from the bins did not identify people, or reveal anything personal. A Renew press release states that the device has been installed as a method of measuring variables in market share between mobile handheld providers throughout the City’s Square Mile.

News of the Renew bin’s activities and capabilities really hit the public after the Independent newspaper reported that the contraptions are being used to track those who pass by the bins. The intent of the bins is to supposedly study the shopping habits of people as a way to improve targeted advertising. However, the opposing argument of the matter is that such technical actions need careful handling, and that the public needs to stay informed.

This is not the first time that Renew bins have been in use. They were initially installed in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, where they displayed public information and advertising across an LCD screen. The Independent revealed that the containers cost a little over $45,000 to install at that time.

Memari stated that further development of the trash bins and its capabilities depends on just how comfortable people become with interactive technology. He chalks up the initial response to people’s fear of what could be developed and working in the future, but what is not currently.

As with any piece of advanced technology that has the ability to collect private information, it’s a very real concern – significant data ends up in the wrong hands and is used for malicious purposes on a daily basis, so why should these data-collecting bins be any different.