Smartphone Tracking Test in London Recycling Bins Cut Short

Renew Solution's program to monotir foot traffic via smartphone ended today.

ByABC News
August 12, 2013, 2:28 PM

Aug. 12, 2013— -- A British company's plan to tap into the wealth of information on the smartphones of passersby for targeted ads on London recycling bins has been nipped in the bud over privacy concerns.

Renew Solution, a company based in England, recently began monitoring smartphones as people passed by shops along London's Square Mile.

The monitoring -- which initially was essentially only counting passing smartphones -- was supposed to be a first step toward eventually using the information on the smartphones, whether through social media apps like Facebook and Twitter or through the phone's own internal equipment, like GPS, to have ads targeted to people's perceived interests appear on screens on the recycling bins as they passed.

After becoming aware of Renew Solution's activity, the City of London asked for the company to stop data collection immediately.

Renew Solution had started testing its new Renew Orb technology in May, using the recycling bins that were already fitted out with display monitors on their sides that provide city news, weather forecasts and stock quotes. According to the initial press release, the recycling bins detected a smartphone's MAC address, a unique identifying number embedded in each phone, via Wi-Fi.

The Renew Orb measured the frequency of unique MAC addresses passing each of its recycling bins. The trial run detected more than half a million devices in one week in June.

Kaveh Memari, the CEO of Renew Solution, compared it to how a website measures traffic.

"It simply is a counter of aggregated and anonymised [sic] data on the street," he told ABC News through e-mail.

The ultimate plan for the Renew Orb was to measure how long people were hanging around shops in the Square Mile, what areas people were visiting and how much time elapsed between visits, among several other variables.

With this data in hand, the next step for the Orb would be to make it available to both retailers and corporate clients, who could then use it to shape their own advertisements. Kaveh wrote that "If the trials prove successful then we will come up with our first use case. But we are some way from that."

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Billy Lau, the researcher who prompted Apple to fix a security flaw in its iPhones and iPads, said the ORB technology is risky.

"The collection of MAC addresses coupled with knowledge of a specific geographic location raises a lot of questions about privacy," he said. "Plus, with today's technology, there are many ways to correlate a particular MAC address to a real person."

In response to the potential security risks, Kaveh said that ORB itself is not at the stage where they can do this type of correlation.

"Imagine 100 people standing within range of a Renew Pod," he wrote. "We aggregate data every three minutes. We have no ability to identify or the accuracy to distinguish one person from another. We just know 100 people past a location."

Kaveh also used this analogy in Renew Solution's official statement about Orb.

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London's network of security cameras, also known as the Ring of Steel, has been in place since the early 1990s, and even has a code of practices.

Lauren Wainright, a freelance journalist living in London, said that she isn't personally bothered by the city's surveillance cameras. However, Renew's technology makes her feel uneasy.

"I had no idea about that scheme and am now a bit weirded out by it," she told ABC News through Twitter. "Glad it's being scrapped."