Unauthorized Smartphone Tracking In Public… Again

I’m beginning to feel a bit like a broken record with this, but here goes: a London-based company is stalking passersby in public, this time by capturing the MAC address of their smartphones using devices implanted in sidewalk trashcans. MAC addresses are a bit like an IP except they are generally permanent and unique to a device.

From Ars Technica:

During a one-week period in June, just 12 cans, or about 10 percent of the company’s fleet, tracked more than 4 million devices and allowed company marketers to map the “footfall” of their owners within a 4-minute walking distance to various stores.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Of course you can opt out, but you have to make your way to the company’s website to do so – and provide them with your smartphone’s MAC address so that they can add it to the block list.

The completely hidden nature of this tracking is what I find most disturbing. It’s one thing to see a security camera and know it’s looking at you; it’s another matter entirely when a trash can is wirelessly tracking your smartphone. There are ways to spoof MAC addresses to get around such tracking, but the average smartphone owner doesn’t even know what a MAC address is, let alone how to mask it.

Of course this is all completely legal for now – and even if it weren’t, it would be quite difficult to detect in the first place. The average non-tech-savvy Joe is getting left ever farther behind as his personal data are being mined by people who are making money off his back without compensating him, and even without his knowledge.

What’s the solution? Legislation is far too slow to effectively curb this, and the only alternative I see is for everyone to know how to protect their digital privacy – but with the rapidly advancing capabilities of Big Data, that’s almost a full-time job.

Maybe we’ll just have to learn to live with the world we’ve created.