LONDON — Officials demanded Monday that an advertising firm stop using a network of high-tech trash cans to track people walking through London’s financial district.
The Renew ad firm has been using technology embedded in the hulking receptacles to measure the Wi-Fi signals emitted by smartphones, and suggested that it would apply the concept of “cookies” — tracking files that follow Internet users across the Web — to the physical world.
“We will cookie the street,” Renew Chief Executive Kaveh Memari said in June.
But the City of London Corporation insisted that Renew pull the plug on the program, which captures smartphones’ serial numbers and analyzes signal strength to follow people up and down the street. Renew didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment on whether it would comply with the authorities’ demand.
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The trash cans join a host of everyday objects, from televisions to toilets, manufactured with the ability to send and receive data, creating new potential for interaction — and surveillance.
It’s unclear how Renew had planned to use data
gathered by its reinforced, shoulder-height pods near St. Paul’s Cathedral and Liverpool Street Station.
But if a company knew a certain smartphone user spent 20 minutes in a McDonald’s every day, it could approach Burger King about airing an ad on a bin’s video display when that user walked by at lunchtime. Or it could target commercials in real time by distinguishing between tourists and people who work in the area.
The prospect drew comparisons to the creepy “Good evening, John Anderton” ads from the Tom Cruise thriller “Minority Report.”
Renew tested the technology using 12 trash cans in May. Later an article on news website Quartz led to a burst of media coverage.
“Anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public,” read a statement from the City of London Corp., responsible for the city’s historic “square mile,” home to financial institutions, law firms and tourist landmarks.
A spokesman said officials had been blindsided by the tests, having learned about them through the press only last week.
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.”