A British startup came under fire for using recycling bins to track people’s smartphones and identify their preferences in view of supporting personalized advertising.

A total of 12 smartphone tracking bins were installed across the UK capital by the startup, called Renew. But following several press reports on the matter and a complaint from a privacy campaign group, the City of London called on the company to stop using the bins.

Smartphone Tracking Bins Switched Off in London

All the 12 pods still in use were equipped with digital advertising screens and Wi-Fi to connect to any nearby smartphones.  The devices monitor and collect various information about the passers-by from their phones, which would allow advertisers to specifically target their messages to those people.

Renew has temporarily stopped using the smartphone tracking bins, but is challenging the City of London’s request. The company said the bins only recorded limited, encrypted and anonymized data, just like a website would monitor traffic. The bins collected absolutely no personal information about the smartphone owners.

The bins practically record the MAC address of any nearby smartphone or other device with Wi-Fi turned on. They do not know the identity of the person who walks by, but can easily determine the model and manufacturer of their smart device and can record the owner’s route, walking speed and direction. The technology can also figure out if a person walking by has taken that route before.

Before being interrupted, the technology was used to determine the smartphone market share in London. But it can easily be used for targeted advertising – specific ads would be shown to different individuals, depending on whether they own an iPhone or an Android phone, for instance.

The technology was installed on only 12 of a total of 100 recycling bins equipped with advertising screens, installed across London before the Olympics last year. Renew is hoping to expand the tech to all those bins, but also to other places around the world, such as New York City, Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, etc., and of course, to sell the idea to retailers.

Although the company gives assurances that the smartphone tracking bins do not collect any personal identification information, privacy concerns remain, as the MAC address could easily be paired with other consumer data in order to identify the smartphone owner.

For the time being, Londoners concerned about the technology have the option of opting out of being tracked, on the website of Presence Orb, the company that actually provides Renew with the tech. What do you think of the smartphone tracking recycling bins? Can they really be a threat to privacy?

[Image via Quartz]