Do London’s Smart Bins put my data privacy rights in the trash?

By Dr. Guy Bunker. 

Advertising is increasingly digitally-savvy and London’s smart bins, which capture data from passing Wi-Fi signals from mobile phones, are the latest example of how innovative technology is adapting to how consumers shop. The scheme, put in place by start-up company Renew, is currently being trialed around Cheapside, with the intention to sell this information to brands to create targeted advertisements. Following on from recent articles in the Independent and CNET that highlight the sheer amount of data that’s captured (In a single week, the bins recorded data from 4,009,676 devices) and the legalities of the scheme in terms of data protection, I found it particularly interesting to see the precision of the mass data collected. For example, Renew say that the data could allow them to track which stores individuals visit, how long they stay there (linger time) and how loyal customers are to particular shops.

With such targeted data at hand, what will this data be used for and what are the implications for the data protection and privacy of the passer-bys? The bins, set up by start-up company Renew London before the Olympics, track the movements of the passer-bys, from the data captured. There is debate (as always) as to whether the MAC addresses that they collect are personal data, or anonymous, and it is this debate which leads to the grey area. Knowing a MAC address is not particularly exciting, but zipper in additional information and target the known individual and there then becomes a real privacy challenge.
Beyond advertising, there are some real concerns about data collected, and how this will be monitored. How can the everyday consumer be confident that the way in which the information is collected and therefore used won’t change to satiate the growing hunger from digital advertisers? After all, the data collected is intended to show shopping habits and brand loyalty to then be sold on to advertisers.
Data concerns aside, one must accept that advertisers are simply adapting to a new age of advertising that relies on big data - an inevitable move in the information age; it’s not just companies that need to change their behaviour to suit a digitally-reliant world but the everyday consumer too. As consumers become more reliant on technology in retail, retailers and advertisers are finding more and more ingenious ways to collect and harvest useful information.

The question is, when does this become an intrusion into people’s lives. Most importantly, from the information supplied about Renew London about its Renew Orb technology, it’s implied the possibility of producing enriched data is quite tangible. In which case, how does one become aware if this becomes the case, and opt out if you don’t want it?

Until further information is available on data protection monitoring of these digital advertising cash cows, there is always the option to simply turn one’s wi-fi off… and then they won’t collect the information in the first place. But that is only useful if you (a) know how to turn WiFi off, (b) remember to turn WiFi off and (c) know that you are in an area where the information is being collected. We live in interesting times…