London Asks Company To Stop Monitoring Foot Traffic By Tracking Smartphones Of Passers-By

You know that tingly feeling you get at the nape of your neck when it feels like someone’s watching you? Londoners might be getting that titchy touch of spy vibes just from walking past recycling bins in the city. Officials have told a company it has to stop using those bins to track the smartphones of people strolling by, because [insert whole lot of privacy concerns right here].

The City of London Corporation has asked Renew London to ditch the 12 pods outfitted with devices that feature LCD screens running ads, and which collect footfall data of passers-by via their phones.

The company says it’s “stopped all trials in the meantime,” reports the BBC, while taking the issue to the higher-ups at the Information Commissioner’s office.

Privacy advocates are calling out the campaign for being intrusive, as the technology taps into personal devices of anyone walking by, whether they’re aware of it or not.

But Renew London’s CEO says the tracking devices are more like how web pages monitor traffic, as the technology only recorded “extremely limited, encrypted, aggregated and anonymised data” to monitor local footfall. Basically, they’re “glorified people-counters,” he insisted to the BBC, saying the company doesn’t hold on to any personal info about the owners of the phones.

That opens the door for more capabilities in the future, but he said the public would be warned of that first. Currently the devices log media access control (MAC) addresses of individual smartphones, which each carry a unique code.

“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 a spokesman for the City of London Corporation.

To that end, the director of Big Brother Watch, a group that had decried the practice, noted:”I am pleased the City of London has called a halt to this scheme, but questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur in the first place.

I just don’t want anyone to be able to see how many times I walk past the fro yo place before I decide to go in (and come out with a pile of gummy worms and sprinkles on a tiny scoop of frozen goodness).

City of London calls halt to smartphone tracking bins [BBC]