London's 'smart' bins track 4m phones a week over Wi-Fi

A scheme set up in London's Cheapside is snaffling phone data via Wi-Fi to target ads to anyone passing.

Joe Svetlik Reporter
Joe has been writing about consumer tech for nearly seven years now, but his liking for all things shiny goes back to the Gameboy he received aged eight (and that he still plays on at family gatherings, much to the annoyance of his parents). His pride and joy is an Infocus projector, whose 80-inch picture elevates movie nights to a whole new level.
Joe Svetlik
2 min read

I don't want to make you paranoid or anything, but the bins are watching you. That's right, 'smart' bins being trialled in London's Cheapside are sniffing out passing Wi-Fi signals from mobile phones, and snaffling your data without you even knowing.

And it's happening on a mass scale. In a single week, the bins 'captured' 4,009,676 devices, The Independent reports. (For each 'capture', the bins noted someone's MAC address and followed their movements.) Unsurprisingly, the aim is to use our data to target ads at us. Whoop-dee-do.

The bins were set up by a startup called Renew London. It plans to use the data to record which shops you visit, how long you stay there, and how loyal you are.

It's a little scary just how involved the ads could get. If the technology was extended into the shops themselves, pretty much anything you do could be monitored. If one shop was notified that a regular customer had started buying their breakfast elsewhere, for example, it could flash up an advert on a nearby bin telling them about a special offer when they passed. As it can tell which company made your phone, you could be followed around by ads for rival mobile makers.

Basically, it's taking how our data is already used on the Internet, and extending it into the real world.

Collecting anonymous MAC addresses is completely legal. But the scheme could come unstuck if it's deemed to fall under the EU directive covering the use of cookies. You have to give your consent for your data to be stored using cookies -- hence those warnings that became mandatory on websites last year.

Renew CEO Kaveh Memari defended the tech, telling The Independent: "The gist of it is that we are collecting anonymised, aggregated MAC details. We're not really collecting a personal piece of data: we don't know who anyone is."

Of course you're immune to it if you keep your Wi-Fi off. Considering the stats Renew is punting about, it seems a lot of people are wandering around with it always on.

What do you think of this kind of tech? Too intrusive? Or is it just harmless? Let me know in the comments, or on our Facebook page.