Is Your Cell Phone Sharing Secret Data With a Trash Can?

Retailers are relentless when it comes to marketing. A sneaky recycling bin in London is just the latest way companies are trying to grab your info.
(Photo: Courtesy of Renew)
Aug 13, 2013· 2 MIN READ
is a contributing writer for TakePart and Participant Media’s former Director of Digital Social Action.

Sure, trash cans and recycling bins might seem innocuous, but that's exactly the point. A British-based company used our familiarity with good old-fashioned garbage cans to capture and analyze consumer data. You walk by, throw away a plastic bottle, and boom—they've got your info. Customized ads based on your data are on the way.

Creeped out yet? City officials were too, and yesterday they called a halt to the controversial practice.

The company, Renew Solutions, initiated beta testing for the devices, named "Renew Orbs," earlier this month in recycling bins along London's Square Mile. The orbs detected the presence of smartphones via WiFi, and measured the frequency and length of visits. This data was then used to determine when and how certain advertisements would be displayed on the bins themselves. Basically, if H&M knew how long you'd be loitering outside their stores, they'd have a better idea of how to advertise to you.

Remember in Minority Report when scanners read Tom Cruise's eyeballs to determine his identity and then advertise to him? Yeah, it's a slightly lower-tech version of that.

The company that runs the city's sanitation took these privacy concerns seriously, and asked Renew Solution to scrap the program Monday. "Irrespective of what's technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public," a spokesman for the City of London Corporation said in a statement.

Though U.S. recycling bins haven't been targeted (yet), that doesn't mean retailers aren't doing their best to track you—and your behavior—on our shores. Benetton and Cabela's are openly collecting information on your actions in their stores via WiFi, and Nordstrom was recently doing the same until customers complained.

The department store reps argued that this data was used to "increase the shopping experience," which translates pretty clearly into "get you to buy more stuff." Even if it means something as innocuous as changing the location of a display, that action the result of a company tracking your personal behavior without your knowledge.

Don't think you can return any items that didn't fit, either. Returns are used for data as well. The Associated Press reports that JCPenney, Victoria's Secret, Best Buy and other retailers are collecting information from customers returning items to stores and creating "return profiles." The retailers insist that this practice is to prevent fraud in the form of individuals stealing high-end merchandise and attempting to return it for store credit, but many consumers aren't convinced.

From the AP:

"I had absolutely no idea they were doing that," said Mari Torres of Springfield, Va., during a shopping trip with her daughter at the Pentagon City Mall in Arlington, Va. "I honestly think it's an invasion of privacy."

Torres, 39, says she's a responsible shopper and she'd like to know what kind of information retailers keep on her, with whom they may be sharing it, and how long they keep it.

Even though retailers are only logging the return activity, and not keeping additional information on the customer, the potential for private companies to gain access to individual data is very real.

So yeah. Sorry, kids. Big Brother is definitely here to stay—at least in the world of retail. As long as cell phones continue to exist (and they will), and as long as people still need to go buy stuff from Home Depot (and they will), there's going to be the possibility that your purchasing history, location, preferences, and even demographic data, will be tracked. So, in the words of George W. Bush, go shopping more! Maybe leave the iPhone at home, though.