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London Company Performs A Market Test Using Recycle Bins That Track Smartphones

Advertisers and companies are getting more aggressive about tracking consumers by using a variety of technologies. An earlier blog post discussed a test in Brazil with grocery store shopping carts outfitted with interactive touch-screen tablet computers. Today's blog post discusses interactive recycle bins that tracks the smart phones of consumers passing by.

Recycle bins tracking consumers? Really?

Yes. Recycle bins. During the weekend, ComputerWorld reported a market test in London by advertisers using recycle bins to display interactive ads by tracking the smart phones of consumers that pass or walk by the bins:

"The bins display advertising that's customized for each phone tracked... 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 interactive recycle bins, called "Renew Pods." As you walk by a bin, it serves up an interactive ad based upon the direction you are walking, date, time, and any interactive ads you have seen previously. If you walk by several Renew Pods, the company can track -- based upon the unique identifier broadcasted by your smart phone -- your travel route and collect more data about all of the ads you've seen, and stores you have passed. Supposedly, the foot traffic is summarized and made anonymous. All of this tracking provides advertisers, the retail stores participating in the market test, and the advertising network with a lot more information about the consumers who walked or passed by:

  • Which ads were displayed
  • Which ads were displayed repeatedly
  • Direction of walkers/passersby
  • Which bins displayed which ads

Consumers walking or passing by a bin didn't have to enter any of the participating retail stores to see the ads on the sides of the bins. Consumers only had to pass a bin.

Some examples illustrate where the technology and advertising is headed. If you walk past a bin during a Spring day towards a shoe store participating in the Renew Pods program, you might see an interactive ad on a recycle bin with Summer shoes for sale at that store. If you walk past a bin during the afternoon towards a participating restaurant, you might see an interactive ad about dinner menu items at that restaurant. If you walked past several bins while visiting several dress stores, the bins might display interactive ads about dresses and accessories.

Merely the act of walking past an interactive recycle bin triggers the interactive ads. You didn't have to enter any of the participating retail stores to be tracked and see ad on the sides of bins.

Creepy, eh?

Science-fiction fans will note that this is one step removed from the "Minority Report film, where malls display interactive, personalized ads based upon scanning your eyes.

The problems with the Renew Pod program should be obvious. Consumers don't have a choice. Consumers walking by are automatically included, and cannot opt out of the program/tracking. Moreover, the program does not provide consumers with any notice -- privacy or terms-of-use policies -- about the program, data collected, extent of the tracking, and whom the data is shared with. Basically, consumers can only trust the CEO's claims about your data remaining anonymous.

In the end, common sense ruled and the city of London stopped the program:

"A spokesman for the City of London Corporation said: "Irrespective of what's technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public." "

That should be the goal for any company or executives looking to develop a similar program. Keep the public informed. The program should be opt-in, by first asking consumers if they want to participate. And, the appropriate policies (e.g., privacy and terms of use) must be displayed in order for consumers to make an informed choice to participate or not.


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