London ‘spy bins’ under investigation for phone hacking

Extracting the MAC addresses from passing smartphones. Credit: Renew
The “spy bins” extract MAC addresses from passing smartphones.
Credit: Renew

They look like normal recycling bins, with a display screen showing news updates and adverts. But new “smart bins” in London have been secretly harvesting personal data and are now under investigation, in possible violation of EU law.

The model from technology company Renew has been collecting the unique electronic signatures (MAC addresses) from passing smartphones, reaching more than four million devices in trials this year. The company claims the data reveals the user’s route, frequency of visit and time at a location, which it would provide for advertisers to personally target consumers.

The City of London ordered the company on Monday to stop the practice and referred it to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), a data protection agency, for investigation. “Anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public,” it said in a statement.

Renew director Kaveh Memari downplayed the investigation, telling Metro the data gathered is “always anonymous.” Memari said the practice was “just a trial at this stage to see if the technology worked to merit a longer term discussion.”

But he may be in conflict with the EU’s so-called Cookie Law, which states that permission is required to gather personal data, or cookies (tiny individual databases websites use to identity past users). “The majority of opinion is that MAC address and location is personal data and requires consent,” Richard Beaumont, expert on data protection law at The Cookie Collective, told Metro. “Four readings is enough personal information not to be anonymous.”

Beaumont added that it is not a surprise the authorities were unaware as regulation is outdated. “This is not widely known about so there is no effective deterrent.”

A spokesman of the UK Advertising Association said this type of data gathering went too far, saying tracking “must be transparent to be legitimate.” But the source added that most people want tailored advertising, and a 2012 Accenture survey showed just 36 percent of people objected to being tracked.

The Renew bins will have further trials in North America and Asia.


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