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An interesting bit of news came out about surveillance equipment installed in London trash cans. The smart cans were able to record the unique identifying numbers, or MAC addresses, of smartphones that passed the area.
Smartphone Tracking Equipment Secretly Installed, MAC Addresses Stored
Twelve trash cans were identified to have the tracking equipment. The trackers were able to send the MAC addresses of hundreds of thousands of passers-by. Their smartphones had unwittingly sent the information to a company called Renew London. This company sets up advertising boards / recycle bins that broadcast news and other live feeds. It broadcasts through screens and to mobile devices through WiFi and Bluetooth.
The data recorded by the Renew London bins included the devices’ speed, direction, movement, and type.” The company ran these tests for about two weeks from late May to early June. The devices recorded as much as half a million different devices at a time, and as many as 4 million episodes over this short period. The tests continue in other cities.
The project was initiated by the company as an experiment. They wanted to prove that they could effectively execute targeted personal advertising through tracking mobile phones. They were able to get information on where a device has been, how long it spends there, and what other devices it connects to. An interestingly detailed profile of the device’s “life” is then produced.
The fact that a smartphone can easily be used this way is quite troubling. It reveals the very dangerous state that these devices are in when connected to public WiFi or Bluetooth. The really disturbing part is that tracking a smartphone is essentially the same as tracking its owner. Profiling the phone’s movements and making a detailed analysis of its connections and activities is the same as knowing its owner’s every move.
The idea behind the smartphone tracking project was to prove that they could be used to generate a database. This wide-reaching database would be used for predictive analytics that is very valuable in targeted advertising. But this kind of access can be dangerous. Data collected in this unsecure manner often falls into the wrong hands.
Many Internet users have already heard about cookies and how dangerous they can be. The technology used in these trash can trackers is very similar. The idea was developed a few months ago by a company called Presence Aware. They aptly named it Presence Orb, like an all-seeing eye into the past, present and future of your smartphone. So now people who aren’t even surfing the web are vulnerable to “cookies”. The problem is, there’s no way to tell your smartphone not to be tracked. As long as it is connecting to WiFi or Bluetooth, it can be accessed by these trackers.
Like in the US, as long as the bugs aren’t placed intentionally or on personal property, it’s not a crime. According to Renew London’s CEO, as long as they do not reveal the names or addresses of the smartphone owners, they can legally continue tracking them. Renew London has not provided any details on how they intend to use the data after it has been processed for predictive analytics. They also do not provide any information on how the data is secured, if at all. There is no information on how technology itself is secured either. If the data stream or tracking device is tapped, or the database accessed, all the user data collected from about half a million phones daily would be exposed. Neither Presence Aware or Renew London has not commented on the expansion capabilities of the technology or the project.
UK laws on the protection of data are also similarly vague. It has not yet been determined whether Renew London’s collection of MAC addresses is protected by these laws because MAC addresses have not been declared as personal data. People who have had their devices compromised by these tracking devices have to recourse but to opt out. But this doesn’t mean their data can be recovered. The company announced that it has provided instructions on how to disable the tracking, available on the Presence Orb website. But just like with browser tracking, people found out that disabling tracking doesn’t always work. It may make users feel safe to think they can prevent the technology from recording their MAC addresses. But the only real safety for smartphone users is setting the devices no not automatically connect to WiFi or Bluetooth.
For people who have been keeping up to date on news about NSA surveillance, this little tracking experiment will sound very familiar. It seems that data privacy is a thing of the past. Companies are openly tracking people without their knowledge or permission. The law has all but given them permission to do so. Hiding behind technicalities in the law is not a new thing. But modern technological capabilities have given people powers beyond what the makers of existing laws could have predicted. Fortunately, modern technology can serve anyone, and VPN services are available to ordinary users. VPN technology is a privacy and security tool that is being used by increasing numbers of mobile phone users. With a little caution and a VPN, people can avoid falling prey to unwarranted surveillance.