Thursday, when Ars detailed a distributed DIY Stalking network that spied on mobile Wi-Fi users, several readers said the article overstated the real-world threat. We disagreed then, but we’re even more convinced of the potential for abuse following reports of the deployment in London of trash cans that track the unique hardware identifier of every Wi-Fi enabled smartphone that passes by.

Renew, the London-based marketing firm behind the smart trash cans, bills the Wi-Fi tracking as being “like Internet cookies in the real world” (see the promotional video below). In a press release, it boasts of the data-collection prowess of the cans’ embedded Renew “ORB” technology, which captures the unique media access control (MAC) address of smartphones that belong to passersby. During a one-week period in June, just 12 cans, or about 10 percent of the company’s fleet, tracked more than 4 million devices and allowed company marketers to map the “footfall” of their owners within a 4-minute walking distance to various stores.

There’s no indication that Renew is observing anything more than the MAC address of the phones that pass by. But there’s little stopping someone else—working for his own creepy motives or for a more nefarious company or government agency—from building a similar network that collects the same MAC address data and combines it with any unencrypted traffic that may leak out. At a minimum, that might include the names of wireless networks a particular phone regularly connects to, and in the event the phone is connected to an open Wi-Fi service while in range of the stalker boxes, the information could also include e-mail addresses, personal pictures, first and last names, and whether the person uses a dating website or other online services.

  1. msbpodcast says:

    So what?

    Anything I want to send privately I encrypt.

    I could care less about people tracking my devices.

    • dusanmal says:

      And they count on the people like you… By tracking your devices and being able to relate them to both physical and online events such companies attempt to “divine” your wants and needs and believe to be able to influence them. So what? So what happens both when they are correct and when they are wrong. If we accept and not regulate-out such spying, soon it may for real divine what car you like and which one you don’t. Next time when you want to buy it (or home or appliance or food or service like insurance) – it will make you pay more than free market value for what you want. Your income will effectively be lowered. Or, system may make mistake of who you are and what you want and need and as result it may deny you car, house, service,…. Or even worse – bad people might use info in directly discriminatory manner (Obama and IRS vs. Tea Party, which could be R President and IRS vs. You) – this system enables such discrimination in its roots. It is discrimination personified. And it must be called such. And it must be fought as any other discrimination of the past. Because this one is the worst – allowing specialized discriminatory actions across all the aspects of life and essentially against everyone.

    • Dallas says:

      Agreed. In addition, all wifi routers will have this capability in 5 years for $29.99

    • Mr Diesel - Bobbo who thinks nothing is wrong with child porn says:

      What about if they are tracking your medical comings and goings? They already have all your medical records at the IRS and now they would know you are trying to seek alternative medical resources.

      Welcome to reality.

    • Looks very funny!

  2. Peace and Love says:

    That rubbish bin looks like Elmo the Pedophile! I’m more concerned it’s going to groom and rape children.

    • Mr Diesel - Bobbo, who thinks there is nothing wrong with child porn. says:

      Or maybe just take pictures of the naked for bobbo.

  3. moss says:

    The London Council has ordered the company that own the bins to cease and desist immediately.

  4. Donna Michaels says:

    To be honest, that trash can is kindda cute! cookie monster, ey?


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