‘Smart bin’ data trial axed by council

The City of London Corporation has ordered an outdoor messaging firm operating a network of ‘smart bins’ that collect data from passing smartphone users to stop over fears the practice is falling foul of legal requirements.  

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The local authority has ordered Renew, which operates a series of hi-tech waste bins that can identify passers-by through collecting data from their smartphones, to cease the practise following an outcry after news of the capability became public.  

Renew has agreed to halt the activity following the City of London’s order, with the public body additionally reporting the matter to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) as a precautionary matter.  

A City of London spokesman says: “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.” 

An ICO statement adds: “Any technology that involves the processing of personal information must comply with the Data Protection Act. We are aware of the concerns being raised over the use of these bins and will be making enquiries to establish what action, if any, is required.” 

Renew, whose primary business is to show targeted messaging on its network of waste bins, claims the launch of the functionality – which collects data from passing smartphone users by capturing their device’s unique MAC address – collected anonymised data to better assess local footfall.  

However, media reports portrayed the technology as ‘Big Brother-style smart bins’ and prompted both the local authority and tech firm to act to allay public fears, in an attempt to ward-off further scrutiny from regulators.  

“This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection – even if it is anonymised – needs to stop,” adds the City of London spokesman.  

Meanwhile, Renew CEO Kaveh Memari has written on the company’s blog in defence of Renew, alleging the initial media reports on his company’s “trial” were sensationalist, adding the practice was no different to how companies monitor traffic to their websites. 

“A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now,” reads the post. “So we couldn’t tell, for example, whether we had seen devices or not as we never gathered any personal details.” 

He further assured the company would ensure the public was “comfortable” before conducting any such future trials. 

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