London's high-tech garbage cans fail the 'Privacy Smell Test', says Bellehumeur


I read an article recently on Bloomberg (click here to read) that both fascinated, and creeped me out, at the same time. It appears that a number of ‘space-age’ garbage containers used in different parts of London do far more than just take your garbage … they also take information from your cellular phone!

The garbage cans (shown here) are quite expensive – in the tens of thousands of dollar range – and each is loaded with on-board LCD space which is a great form of advertising. What is disturbing, however, is that the devices are able to anonymously gather your MAC address, to allow it to identify which cellular provider you are using.

To be clear, this is not the first time that garbage cans have been used to provide interactivity with handhelds in close range. I have heard of a few Bluetooth-based advertising solutions that allow you to take action by sending coupons for nearby retailers/restaurants to your phone.

However, this is quite a different scenario because the mobile phone user has the option to disable/refuse the messages. In this garbage can scenario, the information was sent without their knowledge, as a way to allow providers (and likely cellular tower operators) to get a better understanding of the usage/number of devices for each carrier in a certain intersection.

Now, I don’t want to blow this too far out of proportion. The reality is that the company did not get any information about the user in any way from these cans. The information was sent in batches so, it really just reported how many Vodafone users walked by, as an example, not who the individual users were.

Bottom line

Again, no personal information was apparently obtained or stolen here, so there really was no harm. As leaders in this new market, we need to ensure that we don’t push the envelope of doing ‘what is cool’ without first factoring in the implications. And as an industry, we need to ensure that we err on the side of protecting the privacy of users, especially those who have not given permission to obtain such information. It is imperative that we are extra cautious, as there is already a lot of concern among the general public about how information is gathered through various M2M / Big Data solutions today.

The author is Larry Bellehumeur, EVP of Sales and Marketing at Novotech Technologies (
You can reach him directly by emailing larry(@) You can follow Novotech on Twitter (@NovotechM2M) and you can follow Larry personally (@LBNovotechM2M).



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