The City of London has banned high-tech recycling bins from collecting phone data from passers-by. The CEO of Renew, the start-up who owns the bins, says their technology trial has been misunderstood. But as firms increasingly look to monetise data collection, concerns about privacy are growing. Joanna Partridge reports.
It looks innocuous enough, but this rubbish bin has been accused of spying on passers-by. The firm Renew brought the bomb-proof recycling pods to London's financial district before last year's Olympics. In May they fitted a dozen of their bins with a device that detects nearby smartphones - and collects data from them. Kaveh Memari, Renew's CEO, says the trial has been misunderstood. SOUNDBITE: Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, saying (English): "One of the core considerations that we have was what's our reach - how many people walk past our network." The ORB technology inside the pod looked for smartphones which had their wifi turned on - and then logged the device's unique number. The trial had already finished when the local authority asked Renew to stop collecting the data. PTC Renew's ORB technology was able to detect how far away a smartphone or device was, the speed it was passing by at, and who manufactured the device. That data was anonymous. But by collecting it, Renew became the latest firm to face a backlash over fears about privacy. SOUNDBITE: Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, saying (English): "It will never be "Hello John", because it will never know who you are unless you volunteer that information to it, it will know that it's a device. And I think that's where some of the concerns were, that it was tracking the person." Who collects data through our internet activity and how it's used has been a hot topic since revelations about the U.S's online surveillance program. Peter Gooch from Deloitte says it's also big business. SOUNDBITE: Peter Gooch, Privacy Practice Leader, Deloitte, saying (English): "Information absolutely is power. More and more organisations are looking into the use of data. If they're not doing it already, it's likely that they will be in the future. So whether it's a bank, a social networking site, a telco, everyone is starting to realise that they can monetise the use of this data so it's only going to get bigger and the issue is only going to grow." It's still some way off, but one use of our data could help retailers tailor specific services to certain customers. And while some of us may feel this is invading our privacy, it may just be a matter of time until our movements are tracked outside just as they are online.