The issue of surveillance has been hot and heavy the past few months, and for a while it revolved around government surveillance. Is it wrong? Is it a breach of your privacy? Is it acceptable in certain situations or not?
But now the issue of company surveillance (or should I say tracking) has become a part of the discussion.
It all started when a few of London’s recycling bins got a major upgrade: the ability to track smartphones.
100 recycling bins with digital screens were installed around London, by Renew, before the 2012 Olympic Games. Renew picked 12 recycling bins to install smartphone trackers on them. These tracking bins record the unique MAC address of each smartphone that passes by them.
The MAC address is a unique identification code that all devices have that are able to connect to a Wi-Fi network. The MAC address, however, doesn’t reveal any personal information about the person, and the Renew has stated that it doesn’t collect personal information either.
The recycle bins use this feature to refine ads and provide advertisers with a way to “hone their marketing campaigns.”
Since these bins track your movements they can see which stores you visit and target ads toward you accordingly.
The bins don’t grab any information from your smartphone, they only track the MAC address which then gives them a layout of your movements. The accuracy of this “map” depends on your street route and if you passed any of the “tracker bins” on the way.
You pass one bin…two bins…three bins, and they have your route, which stores you walked into, even where you went for lunch. They also have the potential to figure out your daily route if you pass by them enough.
Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, said that he was working on a project where five tracking devices would be installed in a bar: one right outside, one on the roof, one in each bathroom, and one by the cash register.
[This] would allow the bar to know each person’s gender (from the bathroom trackers), how long they stay (“dwell time” is the official metric), and what they were there for (a drink outside or a meal inside). And targeted advertising for the pub could follow those people around London on Renew’s omniscient recycling bins.
You can see how valuable this technology could be for companies and advertisers. But I bet you’re seeing the privacy issues with this new form of targeted advertising.
But before you make up your mind let me remind you of a few things…
Websites already use this tracking system when you’re surfing the internet
Google, Facebook, they all use some form of cookie to track your internet movements. Websites track your visits, Google already uses targeted advertising, and Twitter tracks your internet movements to improve their targeted tweets.
This isn’t the government tracking you, it’s a company
What’s the difference you ask? Well for one, the company is using this technology to make a profit. They want to improve their advertisers’ experience and reach, and influence potentially new customers; surveillance is not in their interest (hopefully).
The government, on the other hand, would use it to keep an eye on everyone (in the name of security of course). That’s what the NSA is doing. The government doesn’t care about advertisers and customers.
This isn’t to say that the information collected by these recycling bins couldn’t be used by the government. It’s a common occurrence for intelligence agencies and law enforcement to ask businesses for their customers’ data, and I have no doubt that it could (and will) happen. Especially as the “tracker bins” become more widespread.
It’s currently legal in the UK
Even though the UK and the European Union have “strict laws about mining personal data using cookies, which involves effectively installing a small monitoring device on people’s phones or computers,” the collection of MAC addresses is viewed as a “gray area.”
In fact, tracking smartphones through MAC addresses is so new that the amount of regulations concerning the practice is considerably lower than cookie regulations.
But Renew’s CEO holds to his belief that they aren’t violating people’s privacy.
What do you think? Renew never asked for permission to track your smartphone. There were no forms, or anything to sign. So in essence they’re collecting information without your consent.
What if the government ever requested the information? What would Renew do? More importantly, does Renew store the data indefinitely? They probably do, because they want to track you every time you pass by a recycling bin. That data has to be stored, so the “tracker bin” can recognize your iPhone’s MAC address.
The issues surrounding this new form of advertising are numerous, and to be honest I haven’t quite decided whether I’m for or against it.
Since you’re reading this, then you most likely don’t enjoy others keeping track of your movements. It’s not their business, and I get that, but it looks as if they’ve made it their “business.”
Their business to track you, for better or for worse.
How about this; you let me know your position in the comments below. Give me a good reason for the position you’re taking and maybe you’ll convince me to join your side (remember that I haven’t picked a side yet).