A guest post by former Big Brother Watch director, Alex Deane.
Longstanding BBW supporters may remember that I was once Director of this parish. For the past two years, I’ve been a Common Councilman in the City of London, aka the Square Mile. These two things crossed over significantly this week, with the news (broken by Quartz) that a company named Renew, which had installed bins in the Square Mile, was using a data collection capacity installed in those bins to collect information about mobile telephone usage amongst passers-by.
Let’s lance one canard right now: I don’t care what they were using this data for, or intending to use it for. You’ve got no right to snatch data from the airwaves like this, no matter what your ostensible motive and no matter how innocent your alleged plans. This behaviour is wrong in and of itself and it is a good thing that this case has resulted in controversy for those carrying it out and attention for the issue; all the better as it has happened early in the development of this technology – or at least, this latest iteration of it.
For in fact, Big Brother Watch has warned of the risks involved in bin snooping before, in relation to data chips installed in dustbins to permit local authorities to monitor the weight of (and potentially help to track) contents – in that example, as here, there was no declaration by the data accumulators to the relevant group of people that their data was being captured. The use of bins to capture data in the City was a different kind of perniciousness: it captured data wirelessly from passers-by, rather than collecting information from households in a static capacity. Whilst the silent monitoring of your household’s habits is more intrusive on one view, on the other hand this Renew snooping is worse, as there was no likely way for people to know whether they’d been spied on or not, even after they have found out about it (and there was no way of knowing that it was happening as one passed the bins – no warning on one’s own phone, no sign on the bins themselves). With an installed residential bin data chip, either your waste was tracked or it wasn’t; the chip’s either there, or it’s not (of course, we greatly lamented the wave of low-level vandalism that followed our report, as householders removed the chips from their dustbins…). With this new wireless data capture, on the other hand, you’re unlikely even to know if you were a victim of it or not.
The second significant distinguishing feature, though, is the respective positions of the local authorities concerned. With all due acknowledgement of my biased position, I invite you to consider the difference and conclude that it’s in the City’s favour. In the earlier case, the local authorities didn’t just know about the snooping; they were the ones doing it! In our 2009 report, Big Brother Watch was the first to reveal the extent and scope of snooping by authorities, who weren’t going to tell their residents that their data was being collected. On the other hand, in the more recent Square Mile case the City didn’t know that Renew were carrying out their (unauthorised) data collection, told them to stop as soon as we knew and informed ICO immediately.
I don’t mean to cheer the City above others. Rather, I mean to point to an improvement in behaviour by authorities which is demonstrated by this comparison – an improvement brought about by heightened public awareness of data privacy and data security. That awareness is a result, at least in part, of campaigns from NO2ID, Privacy International, the great Big Brother Watch and others – we must do all we can to ensure that their work continues. As a case study (from prompt official action telling the company to cease and desist, to the ICO reference, to helpful press release promptly setting out a pro-privacy position) it’s also a useful demonstration that local authorities can be allies in the fight for privacy, rather than our enemies.