Brave New Garbage: London's Trash Cans Track You Using Your Smartphone

Remember the "smart" trash cans that popped up around London a few years ago? Placed throughout the city, the LCD-equipped cans broadcast info and ads (mainly ads) to passersby. Now, the company that makes them is testing new functionality for the two-year-old devices, allowing them to track and analyze the signals from nearby smartphones. How come the worst part of the Minority Report future is the one we get first?

According to Quartz, the company that owns the trash cans—Renew—is partnering with the makers of a new technology called Presence Orb, an analytics tool that tracks consumers via their Wi-Fi connected devices (like “a cookie for the physical world,” the company explains). Embedded in the trash cans, the system can detect devices and observe their behavior, using a unique ID code called a MAC address that is embedded in every Wi-Fi enabled gadget. Orb is accurate down to a 50th of a second, and tracks everything from the speed of pedestrians to what make of phone they’re using.

The possibilities for advertising, of course, are almost endless. The software will let Renew sell businesses a whole range of data about the potential customers right outside their doors. Stores will be able to set up customized ads, for example, that appear on the trash cans' LCD screens when a target customer passes by. For example, if it knows you're a regular at a certain bar, the cans might show you an ad for a different happy hour at a bar nearby. It’ll also allow stores and brands to find out more about the daily routines of their customers (or, to-be customers), like when they stop for coffee and where. And based on data from millions of phones and tablets, Orb can generate detailed animations of how people move through specific areas (and particular stores).

Brave New Garbage: London's Trash Cans Track You Using Your Smartphone

Is it legal? Pretty much. Unlike the US, the EU has laws that require websites to let users know when they’ve offloaded a cookie. Nothing like that exists for MAC addresses, though—so Orb isn’t really doing anything illicit. And Renew, for their part, insist that they can’t find out information like your name or address—only your device’s unique ID number.

Right now, Renew is only conducting tests of the system, but so far things have gone well: In June, they tracked more than four million devices over a single week, peaking at 946,016 devices detected in a single day. And that’s just from 12 Orb-enabled trash cans in central London. “With the Renew ORB technology, we will cookie the street,” said Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, in a release. That must be music to the ears of advertisers—though maybe not consumers. [Quartz]

Brave New Garbage: London's Trash Cans Track You Using Your Smartphone