The unique identifying numbers of over half a million smartphones have been recorded by a network of recycling bins in central London.
Hundreds of thousands of pedestrians walking past 12 locations unknowingly had the unique MAC address of their smartphones recorded by Renew London.
Data including the “movement, type, direction, and speed of unique devices” was recorded from smartphones that had their Wi-Fi on.
First reported by Quartz, the data gathering appears to be a Minority Report-esque proof-of-concept project, demonstrating the possibility for targeted personal advertising.
“It provides an unparalleled insight into the past behavior of unique devices — entry/exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest, and affinity to other devices — and should provide a compelling reach data base for predictive analytics (likely places to eat, drink, personal habits etc.),” reads a blog post on the company’s site.
In tests running between 21-24 May and 2-9 June, over four million events were captured, with over 530,000 unique devices captured. Further testing is taking place at sites including Liverpool Street Station.
Renew operates around 100 recycling bins around London, primarily in the City of London, which double up as digital advertising boards. Twelve of those bins, were fitted with tracking devices.
The project is the first use of a piece of technology called Presence Orb. Launched by Presence Aware in March of this year, Presence Orb is described as “a cookie for the real world”, in reference to web cookies that track your online behaviour across sites.
People wishing to opt out should visit the Presence Orb website, which has instructions on how to prevent your phone’s MAC address being picked up by their technology.
The use of personal data in the UK is governed by the Data Protection Act. It is unclear whether the collection of MAC addresses would fall under this act. If it was successfully argued that it was “personal data”, perhaps because individual phones are being specifically tracked, then it would fall under the act. If the data was adequately anonymised, it could be argued that it isn’t personal data.
Presence Orb declined to comment for this article. Wired.co.uk has contacted Renew and the Information Commissioners Office for comment and will update this article when we receive a reply.
In a comment to Quartz, Renew London CEO Kaveh Memari said, “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.”
Update 18:15 09/08/2013— “[We collect anonymised and aggregated MAC data — we don’t track individuals or individual MACs. The ORBs aggregate all footfall around a pod for three minutes and send back one annonymised aggregated report from each site so the idea that we are tracking individuals again is more style than substance,” says Memari in an email. “There are applications in the future which Quartz focused on but during the trial period we are only looking at anonymised and aggregated MAC data.”
He adds, “as some of the technology we will be testing will be on the boundaries of what is regulated and discussed it is our intention to discuss it publicly and especially collaborate with privacy groups like EFF to make sure we lead the charge on [adding necessary protections] as we are with the implementation of the technology.”