Someone to Watch Over You: London’s Recycling-Bin Spies

In June, Renew London equipped a dozen recycling bins in England’s capital city with technology to track people’s smartphones as they milled about the city. The devices went largely unnoticed until the appearance of an August articleentitled, “This recycling bin is following you.”

The piece set off a bit of a media storm as people realized their every move was suddenly capable of being scrutinized and stored away for keeping, safe or otherwise.

Within five days, the City of London ordered the tracking devices to be disabled.

Here to discuss the situation is the man who broke the story, Siraj Datoo. In this TechNewsWorld podcast, Datoo talks about how he happened upon the recycling bins, why the reaction was so visceral, and why the City of London decided to ban them — after bragging about them.

Listen to the podcast (18:52 minutes).

Here are some excerpts from the podcast:

TechNewsWorld: One thing that’s interesting about this story is that the recycling bins that were equipped with this technology were actually introduced in June and weren’t reported on, really, until your article, which was on Aug. 8. What was it that kept this story hidden? And how did you stumble across it?

Siraj Datoo: Well, in some ways it was a hidden gem because the story was sitting there for everybody to see, but it’s not something that you really think about. These bins have been around in London for quite some time, and, you know, they look like innocent recycling bins, with a few digital screens on either side; they have adverts for Reuters and McDonald’s. We came across one… on Twitter and thought, “Well, that’s kind of interesting.” I normally live in London but hadn’t seen that before.

So I kind of dug into them a little bit and found out they had these chips, these “orbs,” they call them, and they launched in June…. So I started looking into it — I found it kind of interesting. What do they do with the information? So I spoke to Renew’s CEO, Kaveh Memari, and we had a really interesting discussion. I found out exactly what the technology was being used for.

TechNewsWorld: Do you think the fact that it was — if not explicitly hidden — the fact that it wasn’t well-known was part of the cause for what was a pretty uproarious reaction? I mean, like you said, there was a five-day turnaround between when you wrote your story and when the City of London said, ‘You gotta disable this.’ Was part of that, do you think, because it was secret to so many people?

Datoo: Yeah. So we published Renew’s CEO’s open letter following the event, after there was a media storm about it, after there was a privacy outcry. He wrote something like, “This is all in the interest of a headline.” I think the fact that there were so many publications that wrote about really shows that it wasn’t just about a headline. There was something to be said.

The fact that people were walking through Square Mile, a really historic part of London in the heart of the Financial District, and people didn’t know it was happening; you couldn’t tell it was happening when you walked past. If you walked along the street, you really had no idea that your phone was essentially giving this recycling bin your information, and I think that’s really what was the craziest part about it. People were walking, and it’d been happening for so long, that their information was being taken away from them.

TechNewsWorld: You mentioned your conversation with the CEO of Renew, and in your original article, the quote that I thought was so interesting from him was, “from our point of view, it’s open to everybody. Everybody can buy that data. London is the most heavily surveillanced city in the world. As long as we don’t add a name and home address, it’s legal.”

That seems either disingenuous or tone deaf, especially given all that’s gone on this summer when you talk about data surveillance. What did you think when you heard that, and what did you think of his hypothesis that, you know, it’s not really a big deal because everybody has access to this data?

Datoo: Well, again, I agree with you entirely. It was extremely disingenuous because [of] the entire idea that you can get access to that data, when in all fairness, you didn’t actually know they had your data. You didn’t have any idea they were able to take that information from you, able to see, you know — from that data they could actually see which shops you went into.

So for example, if you walked past one of their bins — maybe you walked past three of their bins — and then you stopped for a little while, they track that down as dwell time, which means if you stopped into Starbucks, they would be able to notice that. And then, you know, let’s say you came out after five minutes and you walked back in the same direction, they could tell that’s exactly what you’ve done.

That idea, that you can just get access to that data, and really you didn’t even know what that data was, is very concerning. I mean, that kind of links to their idea that they want to make this in some senses the real-world “cookies” that we see online. Renew are peddling this line about only being the MAC address, but it’s really about the MAC address and a specific location and a specific time.

That’s where it’s worrying, really. That information is entirely personal to you, especially when mixed together.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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