Smart bins are watching you

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It’s intriguing how news stories can bubble under the surface for a while and then explode into the public eye, with significant consequences for everyone involved.

Today’s example is the case of the Renew London waste recycling bins, which have been appearing on City of London streets since January 2012. As well as being a regular waste bin they are equipped with a large screen on each side for displaying digital advertising.

Up until recently that’s all we thought they did, until an article in Quartz magazine brought a darker side to the public attention.

Up to a dozen of these smart bins have been secretly scanning for passing mobile devices and storing this data to compile a database of the movement of individuals around the City of London. All of this was done without consent, although the trial details have been published on the Renew London web site.

How do they do this you might be wondering? Every device capable of using Wi-Fi has a permanent hardware (MAC) address which uniquely identifies the device and often even the make and model. If your mobile device has Wi-Fi enabled then your unique MAC address is broadcast periodically when your device scans for access points.

The Renew London smart bins can listen out for these signals and record the MAC addresses that it ‘sees’. According to the published trial data they captured nearly a million devices on just one day in June!

They would probably still been doing this if it wasn’t for the sensationalist claims from the Renew London CEO Kaveh Memari, who went a little too far in explaining just what his technology is capable of.

Memari said he was working on a proposal for a bar that would install five tracking devices: one by the entrance, one on the roof, one near the cash register, and one in each of the bathrooms. That would allow the bar to know each person’s gender (from the bathroom trackers), how long they stay (“dwell time” is the official metric), and what they were there for (a drink outside or a meal inside). And targeted advertising for the pub could follow those people around London on Renew’s omniscient recycling bins.

It would seem that the City of London Corporation was not aware of exactly what Renew London had been up to and the adverse publicity has caused them to swiftly deal with the situation.

THE collection of data from phones and devices carried by people passing sophisticated waste bins in Square Mile streets should stop immediately, says the elected City of London Corporation, which provides local authority services to the global business district around St Paul’s.

A spokesman said (Monday): ‘We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office. 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.’

The bombproof waste and recycling bins, which also carry TV screens with public information, were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets.

‘This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection – even if it is anonymised – needs to stop,’ added the spokesman.

An official statement from Mr Memari has also confirmed a cessation of the ‘trial’:

During our initial trials, which we are no longer conducting, a limited number of pods had been testing and collecting annonymised and aggregated MAC addresses from the street and sending one report every three minutes concerning total footfall data from the sites.  A lot of what had been extrapolated is capabilities that could be developed and none of which are workable right now.  For now, we no longer continue to count devices and are able to distinguish uniques versus repeats. However, the process is very much like a website, you can tell how many hits you have had and how many repeat visitors, but we cannot tell who, or anything personal about any of the visitors on the website.  So we couldn’t tell, for example, whether we had seen devices or not as we never gathered any personal details.

Future developments will, however, not just depend on technology, but also, most importantly, on people being comfortable with interactive technology – much as has happened over the course of the weekend on the internet.

This is a somewhat less ebullient statement than one of Memari’s previous quotes:

“The chances are, if we don’t see you on the first, second, or third day, we’ll eventually capture you,” he said. “We just need you to have it on once.”

What can you do to protect yourself from this gross invasion of privacy? Disable Wi-Fi (and Bluetooth) if you aren’t actively using it when you’re out and about. Doing this will help save your battery too. You can also register your MAC address and opt-out of data collection via the Presence Orb web site.

It’s interesting to note that since this story broke the Renew London bin screens have been conspicuously devoid of any advertising. Evidently advertisers don’t want to be associated with this trial either.

Renew London waste bin


Dumb binUpdate: 12-Feb-2015

London’s ‘smart’ bins have been unceremoniously decommissioned, as you’ll see in this photo.

The RenewLondon.com domain name was sold in June 2014 and it now resolves to an accounting blog.

The former Renew London business seems to have disappeared without a trace, disproving the theory that where there’s muck there’s brass!

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LTE, 4GEE and sleeping giants

For many years Vodafone and O2 have been regarded as the heavyweights of the UK’s mobile operators, but the status quo is changing.

First to set the scene with a bit of telecomms history.

In the beginning there were two UK cellular radio operators – Vodafone and Cellnet. They operated TACS analogue radio in the 900MHz band, but this radio technology didn’t make the most efficient use of radio resources and it was open to eavesdropping. Five years later a new standard for digital cellular communications (GSM) was introduced.

Vodafone and Cellnet launched GSM networks in the 900MHz band and gradually migrated existing customers onto the new service. In 1990 the GSM standard was updated to support the 1800MHz band (then known as DCS 1800) and in 1993 two new entrants – one2one and Orange – launched GSM digital services.

The new operators were at a technical disadvantage because the higher frequency of their 1800MHz radio signals didn’t penetrate as far as 900MHz. This particularly affects in-building coverage and it meant they had to build out considerably more network infrastructure than the competition. Despite this one2one and Orange started a mobile revolution and through innovative tariffs and services they can be credited with making mobile phones accessible to the mass market.

In 2000 the UK Government raised £22.5 billion in a spectrum auction for the new 3G mobile standard operating in the 2100MHz band. Licences were won by all four existing mobile operators and Hutchison 3G became the fifth entrant to the UK mobile operator club.

Some rebranding went on at the operators, with Hutchison 3G becoming “3”, BT Cellnet becoming “O2” and one2one becoming “T-Mobile”. There was one constant however and that was the size and dominance of the original two operators, with Vodafone and O2 still sharing over 50% of the total UK market between them.

In 2010 T-Mobile and Orange merged their UK businesses to become ‘Everything Everywhere’. It was initially dismissed by some as a forced marriage of desperation, but by combining their networks under a common umbrella, with double the network capacity and vastly superior mobile coverage, a sleeping giant was born.

This brings us right up to date with the arrival of LTE. This is the latest evolution of digital mobile communications which delivers wireless speeds of up to 40Mbps, but it requires new radio spectrum in which to operate. In the UK Ofcom have reserved the 800MHz and 2600MHz bands for LTE, with another spectrum auction due to take place in 2013.

While the big two operators waited patiently for the forthcoming LTE spectrum auction, Everything Everywhere were busy plotting. They were in possession of more 1800MHz spectrum than they needed to satisfy current demand and so they made a tactical strike. They asked Ofcom to vary the terms of their licence to allow them to re-farm the 1800MHz band for use with LTE.

After a brief consultation period and despite protests from Vodafone and Telefonica (the Spanish owners of the O2 brand), Ofcom agreed to the request:

1.2 On 23 November 2011 we received an application from EE for variation of its 1800 MHz licences to enable it to provide services using LTE technology in those frequencies. The application encompasses all frequencies currently licensed to EE in the 1800MHz band, i.e. the 2×15 MHz that it undertook to divest as a result of its merger in 2010 and the 2×45 MHz it will retain.

1.8 Although we consider it likely that EE will enjoy a competitive advantage during the period before other operators are able to launch their own LTE services, we consider on the evidence available that any such advantage is unlikely to result in an enduring advantage which distorts competition to the detriment of consumers. Our assessment takes account of the impending release of additional spectrum in the 800 MHz and 2.6 GHz bands which will enable other operators to launch competing LTE services during the course of 2013. We have also taken into account EE’s obligation to divest itself of some its 1800 MHz spectrum.

1.9 In light of this assessment, and for the reasons explained in more detail in this decision, we consider that it is in the interests of consumers for us to vary EE’s licences now, in accordance with EE’s request. We have therefore today issued EE with varied 1800 MHz licences with the provisions authorising LTE and WiMAX coming into force on 11 September 2012.

It’s interesting to note that Ofcom made it explicitly clear that the ruling covered the 1800MHz spectrum which Everything Everywhere are required to relinquish.

Shortly afterwards Everything Everywhere announced their immediate plans to launch a LTE service starting in 16 major UK cities, and a week later they agreed to ‘dispose’ of a sizeable chunk of 1800MHz spectrum to 3:

As part of the commitments given when the European Commission approved the merger of Orange and T-Mobile in the UK in March 2010, Everything Everywhere was required to divest 2X15MHz of its 1800 MHz spectrum.

In accordance with these commitments, Everything Everywhere has today announced an agreement with Three to transfer this 2×15 MHz of its 1800MHz spectrum to Three. Ofcom and the European Commission will review whether the divestment satisfies the merger commitments, and a response is expected within the next three months.

This means that 3 might not be far behind in their own commercial launch of LTE in the 1800MHz band, since it does not require a separate application to Ofcom.

Vodafone and O2 were clearly on the ropes, but without a decent range of desirable handsets Everything Everywhere’s LTE rollout would only be in demand from data hungry road-warriors using mobile broadband dongles.

On September 11th Everywhere Everywhere announced their re-branding as ‘EE‘ with their 4G LTE service branded as ‘4GEE’. The following day the final piece of the jigsaw slotted into place with Apple’s public announcement of the iPhone 5.

As expected the new iPhone does indeed support LTE, but only on some frequency bands. The surprise was Apple’s choice of LTE bands for the European hardware variant, omitting support for the 800MHz and 2600MHz bands which are due to be auctioned next year. It does however support the 1800MHz band which EE are using for their 4GEE service. This has effectively handed EE a virtual exclusive on the iPhone 5.

Was this just a fortuitous coincidence for EE? The exquisite timing of EE’s new brand launch and Apple’s iPhone 5 LTE announcement was a marketeer’s dream. I have no doubt that EE and Apple have been working out this arrangement to marginalise Vodafone and O2 for quite some time. The sleeping giant has awoken!

The old guard are guilty of standing still and the tables have been turned while they were napping. There is an argument that Ofcom has not been fair in handing EE a considerable head start and commercial advantage in starting LTE without any competition, but the damage has been done and there is little to be gained from late legal challenges.

Vodafone and O2 will have to accept defeat on iPhone 5, concentrate their efforts into playing catch-up on LTE, then try and win back customers when their EE contracts expire. Whatever happens, the long established landscape of the UK’s mobile network operators has changed and once again Apple have had a hand in shaping it.

Front Page News?

It’s bewildering what the BBC considers to be front page news.

BBC NEWS TOP STORIES: O2 apologises for roaming glitch

Oh dear! Did international roaming fail leaving O2 customers without data services abroad, or did naughty O2 overcharge their customers? No, neither.

This headline actually relates to an insignificant story of how a very small number of O2’s roaming customers received a text message incorrectly informing them that they had run up large data roaming charges.

Rachel Sinclair, from Bristol, was just hours into her trip to France on the 24 September, when she received a text on her iPhone telling her she had downloaded £20 of data.

“I double checked the roaming function was off and then turned off the handset but the next morning I received another text saying the bill had gone up to £40. I was away with friends and it really took a bit of pleasure out of the holiday.”

After investigating her case, O2 said that she had in fact accrued just 60p in data roaming charges, not £40.

The company estimates that she was one of up to 100 customers who were sent messages in error at the end of last month, warning them they had reached data roaming limits even though they had not downloaded that amount.

So this wasn’t a case of a mobile operator overcharging, just their automatic warning systems being a bit trigger happy.

This text glitch apparently affected “up to 100” of O2’s 22 million mobile customers (0.0005% of O2’s mobile customer base), but still the BBC News editors deemed this story of sufficient international public interest to promote it to their front page.

BBC: Some travellers have been hit with bill shocks in the past

So? Some travellers have been hit by lightning in the past! What has this got to do with anything? It’s sloppy sensationalist journalism, at a time when the National Union of Journalists are complaining about the proposed cuts at the BBC. First for the chop should be Susannah Streeter, the author of this drivel.

FiReControl FiAsCo

I was going to let this story pass without my commenting on it, then I heard ex-Deputy Prime Minster John Prescott making his own comment on BBC Radio 4 while trying to absolve himself of all responsibility.

The FiReControl project was started by the Labour government in 2004, with a budget of £120 million. It had the aim of replacing 46 smaller fire and rescue control rooms with nine regional control centres.

The project was eventually terminated in 2010 “with none of the original objectives achieved and a minimum of £469m being wasted“.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee was tasked with reviewing the failed project and has published their report.

Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP summed it up nicely:

The Department’s ambitious vision of abolishing 46 local fire and rescue control rooms around the country and replacing them with nine state of the art regional control centres ended in complete failure. The taxpayer has lost nearly half a billion pounds and eight of the completed regional control centres remain as empty and costly white elephants.

The success of the so-called FiReControl project crucially turned on the cooperation of locally accountable and independent Fire and Rescue Services. The Department’s failure both to recognize this and try to ensure local buy-in fatally undermined the project from the start.

The project was rushed, without proper understanding of costs or risks. The leadership relied far too much on external consultants and the frequent departures of senior staff also contributed to weak management and oversight of the project.

The contract to implement a national IT system linking the control centres was not even awarded until a full three years after the project started. The contract itself was poorly designed and awarded to a company without relevant experience. The computer system was simply never delivered.

No one has been held to account for this project failure, one of the worst we have seen for many years, and the careers of most of the senior staff responsible have carried on as if nothing had gone wrong at all and the consultants and contractor continue to work on many other government projects.

The Department now plans to spend a further £84.8 million to secure the original objectives of FiReControl, so that there is a co-ordinated response to national incidents. However it is not clear to us how this extra spending will deliver value for money or achieve the objectives intended.

This is one of the worst cases of project failure that the committee has seen in many years. FiReControl was an ambitious project with the objectives of improving national resilience, efficiency and technology by replacing the control room functions of 46 local Fire and Rescue Services in England with a network of nine purpose-built regional control centres using a national computer system. The project was launched in 2004, but following a series of delays and difficulties, was terminated in December 2010 with none of the original objectives achieved and a minimum of £469 million being wasted.

John Prescott was the minister in charge at the time. He has the barefaced cheek to claim that it wasn’t his fault, because apparently he wasn’t made aware of it! In an interview on BBC Radio 4 he said:

I had responsibility for the policy. We decided we needed a system with natural resilience built into it. We decided the policy and we told people to get on with it. It started in 2004, but clearly from what the committee says it started to go wrong in 2007/8. Of course you try to keep on top of the projects but we were told by them that it would cost about £120 (million). To go four times as much in four years is unbelievable.

Unbelievable indeed!

It is also unbelievable that as the minister in charge Prescott was totally in the dark about the lack of progress and horrific overspend. Maybe he was asleep?

As if we needed it, just one more example of the disgusting extravagance in public spending and total contempt for the taxpayer at the hands of the last Labour government. Lest we forget.

Incandescent

Today (1st September 2011) marks the untimely and unnecessary death of the humble but revolutionary incandescent light bulb, an invention of Englishman Joseph Swan in 1878.

Since September 2009 it has been a criminal offence to manufacture or import any frosted or ‘pearl’ incandescent bulb or any clear bulb with a power of 100W or more, and as from today it is now illegal to manufacture or import 60W incandescent clear light bulbs.

Kerry Nicolaou has been stockpiling thousands of incandescent bulbs which he sells from his shop Orbit Electronics in Twickenham:

This is not a democracy, it’s becoming like a dictatorship, ordering you to do this, do that. You should have a choice.

I agree entirely. What happened to consumer choice?

So who do we have to thank for agreeing to this? It’s our old foe Tony Blair!

In 2007 Prime Minister Blair agreed to adopt European Commission Regulation (EC) No 244/2009 which outlaws the manufacture and import of incandescent bulbs.

So what of the replacement, the compact fluorescent lamp?

Howard Brandston – one of the most respected lighting experts in the world – says this:

Compact fluorescent lamps are dangerous – because of the mercury. If they weren’t dangerous, why would the manufacturers pack them in plastic when they ship them? Incandescent lamps are packaged in cardboard. The truth is they don’t want the mercury escaping – one gram of mercury can pollute a two-acre pond. The bulbs are a serious health hazard.

There is a small glimmer of hope however.

In February 2007 the New Zealand government announced a proposal to ban incandescent bulbs, but in December 2008 their new Energy and Resources Minister, Gerry Brownlee, reversed the decision and lifted the ban on traditional light bulbs.

This government has real concerns about telling people they have to move to energy efficient light bulbs by decree.

It has been well signaled and will come as no surprise that the government is lifting the ban on traditional or incandescent light bulbs.

We are committed to energy efficiency in the home and efficient lighting has an important role to play in helping us reduce the amount of energy we use, but this Government believes it is a matter of consumer choice.

People need good, credible information about the different lighting options that are available to them, and then they can decide what is right for them in their homes.

Lifting the previous government’s ban on incandescent light bulbs simply means we are allowing their continued sale, and I am confident the consumer trend to energy efficient bulbs will continue.

Please join me then in lobbying Energy Minister Charles Hendry to do likewise and save us from this undemocratic Blair legacy.

The Jeremy Kyle Generation

Reproduced below are the words of Tony Blair, responding to claims that British society is in morale decline (copied from an article in The Guardian).

The big cause is the group of alienated, disaffected youth who are outside the social mainstream and who live in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour. And here’s where I simply don’t agree with much of the commentary. In my experience they are an absolutely specific problem that requires a deeply specific solution.

The left says they’re victims of social deprivation, the right says they need to take personal responsibility for their actions; both just miss the point. A conventional social programme won’t help them; neither – on its own – will tougher penalties.

The key is to understand that they aren’t symptomatic of society at large. Failure to get this leads to a completely muddle-headed analysis of what has gone wrong. Britain as a whole is not in the grip of some general ‘moral decline’.

This is a hard thing to say, and I am of course aware that this too is generalisation. But the truth is that many of these people are from families that are profoundly dysfunctional, operating on completely different terms from the rest of society, either middle class or poor.

This is a phenomenon of the late 20th century. You find it in virtually every developed nation. Breaking it down isn’t about general policy or traditional programmes of investment or treatment.

The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were ‘stigmatising’ young people.

After I’d left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.

Wasn’t Tony Blair our elected Prime Minister in the late 20th Century? It was his job to do something about it, rather than glorifying chav culture like it was an amusing joke.

These “alienated disaffected youth … living in a culture at odds with any canons of proper behaviour” are his creation. They have grown up in a culture of state funded hand-outs that rewarded teenage pregnancies and self-inflicted unemployment with free houses and benefits.

Who should we blame for the work-shy feral youths that roam the streets like they own them, spreading lawlessness and intimidation in their wake? Who was the catalyst for the Jeremy Kyle generation? Who nurtured these profoundly dysfunctional families?

Look in the mirror Blair!

Phone "hacking" my arse

I can’t believe the furore over the claims that certain tabloid journalists engaged in what has been ludicrously termed as “phone hacking”. It has even led to the resignation of Andy Coulson, the now ex-Director of Communications at No.10.

The quotes that are coming out of some people are astonishing:

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman, speaking on Sky News, said: “Hacking into people’s phones is illegal. Obviously the criminal law has got to be complied with and if it is broken then it should be investigated by the police and it should be enforced.

Gordon Brown has asked the police to investigate whether he was the victim of phone hacking, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. Mr Brown has written at least one letter to the Metropolitan Police over concerns that his phone was targeted when he was Chancellor, during the latter stages of Andy Coulson’s reign as editor of the News of the World.

Mr Brown and Mr Blair are the most senior political figures to be linked to the phone-hacking scandal. In September, The IoS revealed that Lord Mandelson’s mobile-phone details and an invoice for research on him were among files seized by police investigating illegal activity by NoW reporters when Mr Coulson was editor. Other Labour figures understood to have been targeted include Lord Prescott, David Blunkett, Tessa Jowell and Chris Bryant.

Now let’s be clear about what this “phone hacking” actually means.

When you setup your mobile account you are generally provided with a voicemail service by your mobile operator. You normally press the voicemail button or dial the voicemail service to listen to your messages, but there is also usually another number you can dial from any phone which allows you to listen to your messages if you don’t have your mobile handset with you.

Obviously when you call from another phone the voicemail service needs to authenticate you in some way, so it does this by asking you to input your secret PIN, much in the same way that you enter your secret PIN when you withdraw cash from a cash machine.

The mobile networks have a default PIN for voicemail accounts and you are prompted to change it the first time you use the voicemail service. Now if you elect not to change your PIN and leave it as the default code, then anyone will be able to listen to your messages. THIS IS NOT HACKING!

Hacking would imply something more involved than simply knowing a persons mobile number and the default voicemail PINs of the UK mobile networks.

The idiot ‘victims’ of this voicemail story should be embarrassed more than anything else. Anyone who is stupid enough to leave their voicemail PIN on the default setting without changing it to something secret is an imbecile, particularly those in the public eye who have something to hide.