Wednesday, 14 August 2013

London Bans Creepy Stalker Trash Bins

A government not hesitating to take proactive and concrete steps to protect our privacy seems almost bizarre given recent news cycles, but indeed, the city of London stepped up and asked marketing company, Renew, to remove their mobile-tracking trash bins from London's sidewalks.

Renew deployed 12 bins featuring "ORB" technology that allowed them to collect the unique media access control (MAC) address of Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices as they passed within range. The idea, as outlined in a press release, was to use the data gleaned from tracking pedestrians to serve the most effective ads on the LCD screen on each bin.

The consolidated data...highlights the significance of the Renew ORB technology as a powerful tool for corporate clients and retailers. It provides an unparalleled insight into the past behavior of unique devices--entry/exit points, dwell times, places of work, places of interest, and affinity to other devices--and should provide a compelling reach data base for predictive analytics (likely places to eat, drink, personal habits etc.). [Renew]
You can think of this as a less malicious version of Moscow's new mobile tracking system (although, they use different technologies). 

With only 12 bins, Renew was able to log data from more than 4 million devices over a single week. It is unsettling, at best, that this data could be used to paint reasonably detailed portraits of pedestrian behaviour without any notification or ability to opt-in to this data collection program.

Certainly, tracking systems like this should be a concern for anyone using a Wi-Fi capable mobile device. And while Renew likely does not harbour any malicious intent, similar techniques have already been shown as feasible. In previous demonstrations, researchers showed that by simply using common network names like "Apple Store" or "Boingo Hotspot," mobile devices could be tricked into auto-connecting to unsecured Wi-Fi networks that serve your data to anyone watching.

Fortunately, defense against programs like ORB is available. A simple mobile VPN will ensure that any data sent over unsecured Wi-Fi networks is safe and disabling Wi-Fi on your device when you don't need it will prevent it from talking to these networks at all.

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