Snooping into the everyday life

By Dinesh Lodha, IFMR Finance Foundation

A scene from Minority Report gave us a flavor of what the future of personal advertising might shape to be. Renew, a start-up, has taken this concept to heart and installed what some say “Smart”, but mostly say, “Spy” bins in the city of London.

Having installed around 100 recycling bins with digital displays around London before the 2012 Olympics in the city, the company recently started to tinker a dozen of them by installing a device that tracked commuters who passed by it. Such tracking was done without people being aware of it. The technology behind the tracking device is captured in the video below:

First reported by Quartz, the technology and user privacy that it breached caused a furor prompting the City of London authorities to issue cease and desist instruction to the company over such tracking.

The technology’s premise is simple – when a commuter walks with his smartphone past one of these bins, a unique media access control (MAC) address of the phone is recorded, provided the phone has Wi-Fi enabled. Such specific recording will let the system know about the habits of the commuter and develop patterns in the long run based upon which marketers eventually can serve tailored ads that are relevant to specific mac addresses (people).

Image Source: Renew

For city officials what Renew had done is to convert a harmless (though hugely expensive) bin into a mini spy station, which caught the authorities as well as the citizens unawares.

The technology could by itself be labeled into one of those “Smart City” initiatives – the very definition of which seems to be fluid. Thus bringing into focus important issues of data protection and privacy especially when taken in the context of an entire city.

The advent of smartphones, sensors, surveillance cameras and other tracking modes has enabled generation of vast realms of information, “Big Data” if you may, which certainly can help in managing a city better, however one cannot wish away the challenges that it poses. In the context of city management, such oversight of public and private spaces needs to be tempered with proper planning and clear citizen outreach about what is being done and why. Likewise, with cities procuring off-the-shelf Smart City solutions from technology vendors, the onus should rest with city authorities in ensuring that at no point issues around data protection and user privacy are compromised – something they should embed in their processes as a periodic check or if it’s something they do not have enough technical capability for, in that case, they should look to set-up an independent team that vets on these aspects periodically.

Issues on user privacy and data protection have obviously larger debates going around them, and with availability of DIY tools like CreepyDOL, it takes another dimension. However in the framework of city planning and urban infrastructure management, city officials while deploying technology would do well to pay heed to these concerns, as their end objective should be not just smart cities but smarter citizens as well.

  • @rahulrg

    Somewhat related: would love to see you guys delve into this truly excellent Bhuvaneswari Raman paper that is at the intersection of technology (data), land titles and political economy. Right up your alley, I would think: http://ci-journal.net/index.php/ciej/article/view/866/909

    “An argument for spatial information transparency without taking into account the wider political economy of information and land and specifically the ways in which information will be mobilised and the power of agents mobilizing it; it may, contrary to the intention of the Open Govt. Data (OGD) project, affect the land claims of relatively poor groups in society. To argue that the construction of legality or the working of the land market is outside the purview of OGD and the transparency project is to allow for the easy takeover of the paradigm by powerful interest groups in society”