Following the news that a small number of London smartbins were collecting anonymized MAC addresses from pedestrians’ smartphones the City of London corporation has asked the firm to stop the scheme.
"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," said the corporation in an official statement.
Kaveh Memari, the CEO of Renew, the company who make the bins, has also released an open letter further explaining the technology.
“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. So we couldn’t tell, for example, whether we had seen devices or not as we never gathered any personal details.”
The bins worked by looking for smartphones with an open Wi-Fi connection and using this to estimate the “proximity, speed, duration and manufacturer”. Over the course of a single week the 12 bins included in the trial logged “4,009,676 devices with over 530,000 uniques acquired.”
In their original publication of the scheme, Renew speculated how the information might be sold to advertisers, allowing them to analyse shopping habits of individuals in a given area. The open letter by Memari reiterated that these are “capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now”.
“Future developments will, however, not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology,” says Memari. “Come the time we discuss creating the future levels of protection, we can move to an improved service where we can bring better content to people.”