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City of London says no to public recycling bins that track smartphones in pedestrian pockets

Michael Gorman, @Numeson
August 12, 2013
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Many have grown comfortable with the targeted ads that populate the modern web and expect companies to keep track of their online activity, but UK firm Renew took things one step further earlier this summer. It began tracking real world traffic on the streets of London by recording the MAC addresses of the phones that passed by some of the many public recycling bins it operates in the city." Today, however, the City of London Corporation demanded that the tracking stop while a determination is made by the Information Commissioner's Office whether the technology complies with the UK's Data Protection Act.

The bins themselves are equipped with WiFi and screens that display a rotating series of ads, and this summer, a dozen of those bins began to record the MAC address of any nearby phones with WiFi turned on. Doing so allows Renew to determine repeat passers-by, how quickly pedestrians are moving so that ads displayed on the bins can be better targeted to the surrounds foot traffic. However, owners of those phones were not notified that their handset's MAC addresses were recorded. For its part, Renew explained in a blog post that the tracking was done on a trial basis and MAC addresses were anonymized and aggregated so that personal information was not recorded. Quartz reports that during the first month of tracking, over one million unique devices were recorded, however, and that over 100,000 phones were identified during the trial's busiest day. What say you, dear readers: want trash cans tracking the surrounding foot traffic in the name of serving you ads targeted to your tastes?

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