A British marketing agency has killed a test of wireless technology that linked smart phone data from passers-by to display ads. There’s a lesson here for other organizations

Reaction to a British company’s plan to use Wi-Fi-enabled recycling bins on London streets to track smart phones and customize display advertising is a warning to organizations pondering use of the technology.

 
If you’ve missed the story, a company called Renew London says it was testing the technology on 12 of 100 bins in the capital with LCD advertising screens.  The idea was to grab the MAC addresses from nearby handsets with location tracking enabled, correlate data and serve up ads tailored to passers-by.
(Renew London created this graphic to show how technology works)

The data doesn’t have a name or address, Renew London’s CEO Kaveh Memari told the Quartz Website, which broke the news last week. But on Monday the city of London demanded the test be stopped and the company complied.

Ever since location data became available in wireless devices organizations have been licking their lips at the possibilities. Why guess at what consumers want when you can track their patterns – where they have been, how long they linger in front or inside a business et cetera.

After all, goes the reasoning, if the user didn’t want to be tracked the location service can be turned off.

Still, it didn’t take long for Memari to issue a statement saying the controversy is overstated. The process was like a Website being able to count how many hits it has had and how many repeat visitors. No personal details were collected. A lot of the complaints were about possibilities for the technology that might be created but didn’t exist now, he added.

But he acknowledged that for the company’s idea to go forward people will have to be comfortable with interactive technology.
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“Come the time we discuss creating the future levels of (data) protection, we can move to an improved service where we can bring better content to people,” he added. “In doing so, we may find that the law has not yet fully developed and it is our firm intention to discuss any such progressions publicly first and especially collaborate with privacy groups such as EFF (Electronic Frontiers Foundation) to make sure we lead the charge on this as we are with the implementation of the technology.”

That’s a welcome approach.  Many people are uncomfortable with tracking technology, even more so with the recent revelations by U.S. security worker Edward Snowden about the ability of American intelligence agencies to collect electronic data about phone calls and email. It’s important for organizations to be upfront about what they’re doing with data. 
 
 
 
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