I remember reporting years ago on rubbish bins in public places that sent a message to base when they needed emptying. I thought it was a bizarre concept at the time until it was explained to me just how much time and money was being wasted on ‘truck rolls’ attending to bins each day that simply did not need emptying. Keep in mind, this was a time when we were desperate to find any excuse to show off the versatility of mobile communications.

Come forward ten years and we now have stylized rubbish bins that are doubling up as electronic advertising billboards and mass snooping devices – or so it is claimed.

Renew is a UK company that erects and maintains these rather ‘interesting’ (as far as bins go) structures in some of the busiest pedestrian thoroughfares in London. Each end of the bin features a high-res screen that shows off advertisements, public info and even a stylized clock (presumably when ad sponsors are sparse).

They actually look great but you wonder how much attention they grab in pushing an ad message, after all, who would want to stop and stare at a rubbish bin in the street for any longer than a nanosecond?

The company promotes its bins as accessing a ‘Daily Reach of the largest City Professional audience in The Square Mile’ and these are high flyers for sure. Clutter free exclusivity “where no other media owner has erected on-street permanent displays, and where affluent AB Professionals see your message in the Financial District 6-8 times everyday on multiple locations.” Where do I sign up?

Ah, but there appears to be a small glitch in this fantastic marketing breakthrough. It appears Renew ran a little test recently using technology embedded in the receptacles to measure the Wi-Fi signals emitted by the smartphones of passers-by, and suggested that it would apply the concept of “cookies” or tracking files that follow internet users across the web – to the physical world.

An Associated Press report suggested “It’s unclear how Renew had planned to use the data but if a company could see that a certain smartphone user spent 20 minutes in a McDonald’s every day, it could approach Burger King about airing an ad on the bin’s video display whenever that user walks by at lunchtime. Or it could target its commercials in real time by distinguishing between people who work in the area and visiting tourists.”

So what? CSPs could do that sort of tracking and data analysis now if they wanted to or had a market for the data, surely. We can also assume that the NSA is also capable of such evil doings and is probably doing similar, or worse, to protect us all. In any case, The City of London was having none of it and has asked the company to cease and desist such unsavoury behaviour.

The CEO of Renew, Kaveh Memari, was forced to blog that “during early analysis, which is no longer being conducted, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting annonymised (sic) and aggregated MAC addresses from the street and sending one report every three minutes concerning total footfall data from the sites.” He said the exercise was just like counting visitors to a website, presumably to verify for advertisers just how many people (or devices connected to people) walked past his advertising bins each day.

It’s great to know that the City of London fathers feel so strongly about our privacy. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that Britain’s data protection watchdog said it would investigate, while Nick Pickles of the privacy advocacy group Big Brother Watch said questions need to be asked “about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

One can only wonder why the same virulent responses to protect our privacy have not been forthcoming where the NDA’s PRISM exercise is involved. I’m certainly more comfortable with the rubbish bins.

First published as The Insider on TM Forum.