An image from Renew's marketing material demonstrating the technology (Photo: Renew)
Some garbage cans in London, UK have been outfitted with technology that tracks the cell phones of passersby in order to target them with advertising (the cans have built-in digital screens that run ads).
The idea, according to The Atlantic Cities, "is to bring internet tracking cookies to the real world," allowing advertisers to target specific customers with tailored messaging.
Here's how it works: the tech allows the garbage cans to record a unique identifier of each phone that passes, and remember it if it passes by again at a later date. It can even track the user's specific route down the street and how fast he or she is walking.
So if you regularly walk the same route to work, for instance, the tech would pick up your phone's signal and start playing an ad directed at you.
In order to pick up a signal from the phone, the user must have wi-fi turned on.
At the moment, the technology can't identify a user's name or personal information, but as the Atlantic points out, if a coffee shop chain had the tracking devices in its stores, it could tell whether you've been visiting its stores, and target you accordingly.
The 12 cans that are now using the technology were originally installed ahead of the 2012 Olympics by a company called Renew, which has partnered with Presence Orb, which developed the tracking technology.
The CEO of Renew, which is considering expanding the technology to all its garbage cans in London, as well as those in NYC, Dubai and Kuala Lumpur, doesn't believe the company's actions violate 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."
The tech certainly seems to track a lot of people: on one day, July 6, Renew's 12 garbage cans identified 106,629 people, taking note of their presence 946,016 times.
Those who do not want to be tracked can turn off their phone's wi-fi, or fill out an online form.
For some perspective on privacy and technology in this country, check out Canada's Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart in the red chair.
She sat down with George in March, 2011 to discuss our online lives, how much information we're giving away, and to share her opinion that "marketers love" to track people through technology: