Over the last few days, UK marketing firm Renew has stirred up quite a bit of controversy thanks to smart trashcans fitted with its Renew Orb technology. In a nutshell, these bins are capable of capturing smartphone data in real-time from people walking by on the street. The company conducted a trial in June that saw it gather MAC addresses from 946,016 devices in a single day. Over a week of testing, Renew reached captured over four million devices with over 530,000 uniques acquired.
Renew never actually asked smartphone users for permission to collect their data. Renew told Wired that the information it's gathering is anonymised and aggregated MAC data and that it doesn't track individuals or individual MAC addresses. Unfortunately, it seems that wasn't enough for the City of London Corporation, which, according to The Independent, has requested that Renew stop collecting the data.
“We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately. We have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office," the City of London told The Independent. "Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public."
Renew says that a lot of focus is on what the technology could be capable of down the road. The company says right now, it's basically a glorified counter.
"A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now," said CEO Kaveh Memari. "For now, we no longer continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats. However, the process is very much like a website, you can tell how many hits you have had and how many repeat visitors, but we cannot tell who, or anything personal about any of the visitors on the website."
Speaking about its trial in June, Renew spoke about the 'significant commercial applications' for Renew Orb, including highlighting leading handset manufacturers as well as pinpointing the most popular destinations in a given area.
Difference is, people visiting websites do it deliberately by clicking into it - nobody expects a trashcan to be "hit counting" you as you walk past. If there was a huge sign above it saying "get within 50 meters and this bin will capture the MAC address of your smartphone, you would see people take an alternative route to avoid it. Information gathering without consent is against UK law.