ICO to investigate London bins that track smartphones

Information Commissioner's Office is making enquiries into bins in London that track passing smartphones to target advertising to owners

The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) is making enquiries into a number of bins in London that track passing smartphones to target advertising to its owners.

Twelve bins in the Cheapside area of London have been equipped with technology that tracks pedestrians through their smartphone’s Wi-Fi connection.

Startup technology company Renew began installing “smartbins” fitted with Wi-Fi and LCD screens before the Olympics. The screens on the side of the bins provide advertising space to passers-by.

But the startup has configured the technology to also record a smartphone’s MAC address (a numerical code, unique to each device) as a person passes the bin.

In theory, this data could allow advertisers to know when a certain device is passing by and tailor advertising to the individual.

While MAC data is anonymised and the collection of these details is legal, it has sparked concerns around privacy and data collection. The UK and EU have strict laws around the use of cookies, where an internet user has to give their consent for a website to store their browsing information.

The tracking of devices without a user’s permission is a grey area in the eyes of the law.

Following the initial report on the issue by Quartz, the City of London Corporation released a statement saying that it has asked Renew to stop the data collection immediately and that it had reported the issue to the ICO.

“Irrespective of what is technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public,” a City of London Corporation spokesman said.

The ICO has confirmed that it is making enquiries into the matter to see if any action will be required. 

“Any technology that involves the processing of personal information must comply with the Data Protection Act,” said an ICO spokesperson.

Meanwhile, the company has stopped its trials.

Renew CEO Kaveh Memari said: “Future developments will, however, not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology. 

"This has always and continues to be our key concern. For now, simply think of the Phase I testing as a glorified counter on the street. At this stage, we are merely running a pilot with extremely limited, encrypted, anonymous/aggregated data.”

In June, the ICO took action against Google over the collection of Wi-Fi data by its Street View cars. The ICO issued an enforcement notice which requires Google to delete the remaining payload data identified last year within 35 days.

Google initially said that it collected the Wi-Fi data by mistake, but later a Google engineer admitted to creating a piece of software to “collect, store and review payload data for possible use in other Google projects”.

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