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So what's wrong with being tracked by advertisers?

Companies are getting more aggressive about using your phone to track you. So what?

August 10, 2013 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - A London startup has equipped 12 public recycling bins in the city to track passersby via their smartphones. The bins display advertising that's customized for each phone tracked. You know, like in Minority Report.

Not only do they not have the option to opt in, the tracked pedestrians aren't even notified that they're being tracked. In an early test, the devices tracked more than 750,000 individual phones in a 24-hour period.

Here's how it works: The bins are called "Renew Pods," and they're supplied by a small company called Renew, which has 200 such bins all over London displaying HD news and ads. Recently, 12 of these bins in London's Square Mile business district were "upgraded" with "Renew ORB" devices, which are designed by a London-based company called Presence Aware to seek out smartphone MAC addresses to identify individual phones. The tracking system determines how close the phone is to the bin, how fast the user is moving, what direction the user is heading and what brand the phone is.

The tracking of people using recycling bins is merely a test. The company has for some time worked with clients to install "Presence ORBs" in various stores. These identify similar kinds of data, and also record the fact that the person entered the store (and how long the person stayed there).

By combining Renew ORB and Presence ORB data, the company can now track which routes are taken between participating stores. This not only makes it possible to show ads based on an individual's past shopping behavior; it also enables the company to know which ads the person may have seen. Having that capability, it can approach other retailers with strong data about the types of people who pass by their stores every day.

The CEO of Renew, Kaveh Memari, told an online publication recently that the company is working on a deal to install tracking devices in key locations in a bar, including near the bathrooms. By monitoring which phones entered which bathroom, the Renew database could determine the gender of individual consumers.

Remember: Once the company pegs an individual's gender in its database, the system will remember the gender when it detects that person walking past one of the Renew Pod recycling bins.

Personal data collection is often cumulative. And I'm sure companies will think of other tricks to tease personal data out of everyday trackable behavior.

What will Google do?

Google, for example, is hatching what is probably the most broad-based set of programs for tracking your location. And it's really good at it.

Google offers an app called My Tracks for Android, which has been recently updated with very precise location-tracking capability. The app keeps a record of every place you go and how fast you move. It even captures elevation data. The captured data can be uploaded to Google Earth to show the routes you walked, ran or hiked on a detailed map.



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