Bin snooping? We’ve been here before

A guest post by former Big Brother Watch director, Alex Deane.iStock_000005457815Medium

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.


  1. Chalcedon
    13th August 2013

    But why were they doing this? Why the secrecy? Financial espionage?

  2. Mark
    13th August 2013

    Not sure the Corporation of London is quite so innocent in this as you make out. Given how authoritatian the Corporation is, they must have approved the bis therefore its inconceivable they didnt know. The Corporation is also guilty of multiple privacy abuses by its numerous CCTV cameras. Finally, for someone who supports civil liberties, why are you a member of a body that makes North Korea look democratic??

    • Thats_news
      13th August 2013

      Gee, Mark. Are you on hyperbolic steroids?

      • Guest
        1st September 2013

        He’s probably just a realist, nothing to worry about, right?

    • Alex Deane
      14th August 2013

      Re “innocence”, the relevant committee approved the installation of the bins – they didn’t know that there would be data-capturing equipment installed. It would be a weird thing to ask a bin manufacturer, wouldn’t it?

      Re CCTV, yes, sort of agree.

      Re North Korea, grow up.

      • Guest
        1st September 2013

        Re: Re North Korea, grow up.

        Strawman. You didn’t answer his question “Finally, for someone who supports civil liberties, why are you a member of a body that makes North Korea look democratic??”

        Whilst I’m not sure where he’s coming from, I do respect both sides of a debate and if your ‘body’ doesn’t respect civil liberties as said by the OP it stands to reason, why?

        • Alex Deane
          2nd September 2013

          Yes, saying that the Corporation is like North Korea was indeed a straw man. Which is why I gave Mark’s remark short shrift. If you want me to go further, Guest, then sure.

          In my view, it is no worse than other local authority bodies on CL – which is to say that it’s sometimes OK and sometimes not – and I work hard to make it better, which is one of the main reasons I got elected. Stopped bullying new legislation on CRB checks. Got new guidance introduced (in partnership with the Manifesto Club) to stop private security guards pushing photographers around. Campaign on CCTV, as BBW well knows.

          Whilst one might prefer an absolutist “never join anything, always jeer from the outside” perspective, one can find the “join and try to change for the better” position more attractive. I do.

          Fair enough?

  3. anon
    14th August 2013

    Just some of the worrying questions that arises from this:

    Why were these devices fitted to the bins?
    Why was this company snooping on people?
    Who wanted this data?
    How was this data intended to be used?
    What is the ICO/government going to do about stopping so much surveillance?
    What has happened to the data collected?
    What would have happened if this was not discovered?

    With so much surveillance around today companies wrongly believe they can just snoop on people. We need to stop all this surveillance now.

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  6. Sceptaphilia
    15th August 2013

    Alex, I agree that this business is wholly outrageous but I struggle with your conclusion that the whole matter shows that local authorities are showing a marked improvement in behaviour. They are only objecting because it wasn’t their idea, or them doing it!

    What I really want to know is what data was collected and why was it potentially useful?

  7. Monitoring via Mobile Devices’ Unconnected WiFi | Nicholson on Technology
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