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Londoners Outraged After Discovering Some Recycling Bins Are Tracking Their Phones

"London is the most heavily surveillanced city in the world…As long as we don’t add a name and home address, it’s legal."

A youth uses a trash bin in central London, Monday, Aug. 12, 2013. Officials say that an advertising firm must immediately stop using its network of high-tech trash cans, like this one, to track people walking through London's financial district. (Photo: AP)

The summer of 2013 has revealed levels of domestic surveillance and technological intrusion many thought only existed in science fiction. But now it's just not the government and hackers that might have their eyes on you -- recycling bins have actually been revealed to be monitoring people's phones in London.

According to the U.K. Telegraph, roughly a dozen bins in the city can connect to the Internet and gather data on those passing by, the stated purpose being to improve the digital advertising on the side of the bins.

The start-up company Renew London began testing out the technology in May, but the news didn't hit the airwaves until this past weekend.

A youth uses a trash bin in central London, Monday, Aug. 12, 2013. Officials say that an advertising firm must immediately stop using its network of high-tech trash cans, like this one, to track people walking through London's financial district. (Photo: AP)

Quartz, which broke the story, explained:

The technology, developed by London-based Presence Aware, is supposed to help advertisers hone their marketing campaigns. Say a coffee chain wanted to win customers from a rival. If it had the same tracking devices in its stores, it could tell whether you’re already loyal to the brand and tailor its ads on the recycling bins accordingly. "Why not Pret?" the screen might say to you. Over time, the bins could also tell whether you’ve altered your habits.

This kind of personalized advertising was famously envisioned in the movie Minority Report—except, in this real-life example, brands are scanning iPhones instead of irises...Kaveh Memari, CEO of Renew, doesn’t think what his company is doing violates anyone’s privacy.

"From our point of view, it’s open to everybody, everyone can buy that data," Memari says. "London is the most heavily surveillanced city in the world…As long as we don’t add a name and home address, it’s legal."

Here's an advertisement for the high-tech recycling bins, via Renew London:

The news has enraged residents who never fathomed the recycling bins would be monitoring their activities, and now officials have said the practice must stop immediately.

The City of London Corporation on Monday mandated that the technology be turned off, and a spokesman for the Information Commissioner's Office commented: “Any technology that involves the processing of personal information must comply with the Data Protection Act. We are aware of the concerns being raised over the use of these bins and will be making enquiries to establish what action, if any, is required.”

Read the latest on the story at Quartz.

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