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The Code War

London Turns Off Snooping Trash Cans That Tracked Pedestrians' Phones

The City of London has killed off smart recycling bins that detect passing cell phones.

Renew London has been asked to switch off its smart recycling bins which had been tracking pedestrian traffic data by sniffing wireless signals emanating from passersby.

The 12 devices, which also feature LCDs that broadcast advertisements, were installed in London to monitor how people moved through the dense urban streets. But, as the BBC reports, the Big Brother Watch campaign, an effort to limit the amount of personal surveillance that goes on in the U.K., brought serious privacy concerns to the City of London Corporation about the bins. Renew London insisted that the devices only recorded very "limited, encrypted, aggregated and anonymized data" that couldn't possibly compromise any particular user's privacy. Spotting the unique MAC addresses of each phone's Wi-Fi signal isn't technically illegal in the U.K., but the fact that it constituted widespread hidden surveillance was apparently enough to get the bins turned off.

Location tracking using cellphones is a growing trend, with occasional media sensations arising when companies like department stores admit to tracking their clients' whereabouts in stores as part of customer service and businesses improvement plans. Apple has previously been in the crosshairs for allegedly tracking iPhone users' position data, along with the Android OS, and the NSA has been revealed to be tracking phone data that includes position information.

[Image via Flickr user: Jon Curnow]