Mobile tracking: you're doing it wrong

15 Aug 2013

ITEM:London has put a stop to a digital advertising pilot that used recycling bins to track the smartphones of passersby.

It’s actually a clever idea, but the execution is a textbook example of how not to launch a data collection scheme for digital ads.

The background:

Back before the 2012 Olympics, a company called Renew London installed 100 recycling bins in London ahead of the 2012 Olympics that came with digital advertising displays and internet connectivity to download/update ads.

According to Quartz, which broke the story, Renew recently added device trackers from local company Presence Aware to 12 of the recycling bins to “bring internet tracking cookies to the real world”:

The bins record a unique identification number, known as a MAC address, for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on. That allows Renew to identify if the person walking by is the same one from yesterday, even her specific route down the street and how fast she is walking.

The object is to collect that data and use it to display personalized ads aimed at people passing by the bins. (The concept is kind of like that scene in Minority Report, only the displays are scanning your phone, not your eyes.)

The Quartz story, published last week, prompted an outcry from privacy activists. On Monday, the City of London instructed Renew to stop the pilot, and reported the scheme to the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Renew CEO Kaveh Memari has defended the tracking scheme in an open letter, saying the story made it sound scarier than it really is, and that the data-gathering technology is more like a “glorified counter on the street”:

For now, we continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats. It is very much like a website, you can tell how many hits you have had and how many repeat visitors, but we cannot tell who, or anything personal about any of the visitors on the website. So we cannot tell, for example, whether we have seen devices or not as we do not gather any personal details.

Memari goes on to say that as the technology gets more sophisticated, Renew will work with privacy groups to make that progression as public as possible to help people get comfortable with the technology.

Memari is correct in pointing out the collected data is anonymous, very, very basic, and not as scary as some media reports made it out to be. Where Renew went wrong was not bothering to tell anyone about the pilot in the first place.

I understand there are all kinds of business reasons not to publicize a pilot. But when it comes to things involving tracking and data collection, that has to be balanced with the reality that the headlines are full of stories about the NSA hoovering up communications data indiscriminately (and even handing some over to other government agencies), and various privacy blowups on social media sites.

Those stories are being read by people who have no idea how mobile phones or the internet work, let alone whether the data being collected on them is anonymous or not (and as we've seen, anonymous data doesn't always stay anonymous).

Also, the analogy to a street counter isn’t very accurate. You know a street counter when you see it, and you know when you are giving it information about you. That wasn’t the case with the Renew bins.

The distinction matters. If you want to make people comfortable with data-collection and tracking technology, you don’t do that by deploying it secretly and waiting to get caught.

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