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    London's New Recycling Bins Will Be Watching Every Step You Take

    Written by

    Lex Berko


    Image via Renew London

    Recycling bins in the City of London know what you’re doing. They are absorbing information about you through your smartphone and then using that data to advertise to you on your walk about town. Cyberpunk? Maybe. Weird and creepy? Absolutely.

    London-based marketing company Renew is responsible for these intelligent recycling units. Each bin is connected to the Internet and has a screen that delivers news, public information, and advertising to passersby.

    While some of the company’s units were in place prior to last year’s summer Olympics, it wasn’t until mid-June when Renew began testing its smartphone targeting service, Renew ORB. The tracking technology within the bins notes a mobile phone or other Wi-Fi enabled device’s MAC address, which is “a unique value associated with a network adapter.”

    Once a bin recognizes your phone, it begins collecting demographic information about you. As you approach other bins of the same ilk, it will target appropriate marketing materials to you based on the acquired data.

    To wholly actualize the creepiness factor, Renew will have to sign up more clientele. When speaking to Quartz, CEO Kaveh Memari detailed a hypothetical ORB proposal for a bar. To reap the full marketing benefits, the imaginary bar should place five tracking devices throughout its storefront: on the roof, at the register, at the door, and at the two bathrooms. From these strategically placed devices, the bar will then know a wide array of demographic details, from a customer’s gender to her purchases, which will assist the bins in determining what to show that customer in the future.

    While there are several aspects to this plan that are unsettling, the one that vexes me the most is how little Renew seems to grasp that this idea is unsettling in the first place. On a certain level, it’s understandable—it’s a business and it’s probably not be the best practice for a business to publicly admit that something it’s doing is sneaky. But Renew seems to just completely gloss over the off-putting nature of ORB.

    In an early commercial touting Renew's technology, a low and somewhat husky male voice narrates over a scene of bustling London. Towards the end of the thirty-second spot, the narrator says,

    “An active and intelligent audience demands more of the street, where to stand still is to be left behind. Wherever you are, when on the go, we’ll be there.”

    An active and intelligent audience probably doesn’t want its every move and personal detail being tracked for marketing purposes. Renew doesn’t seem to comprehend that most people wouldn't like to be followed everywhere they go by anything, no matter what it is, let alone by a series of recycling bins with ulterior motives.

    Maybe this is just another notch of support for the idea that we should start conceptualizing our data as our property. But since an era in which that is possible is a long way off, I’ll probably just avoid the City of London for a while and stick to throwing my recycled goods in dumber, less disconcerting receptacles.