These Two Tech Startups Prove Privacy is a Thing of the Past

Advanced tracking capabilities used to be a trope of sci-fi. The idea that governments and corporations could keep a constant tab on anyone seemed unrealistic. But then, something happened: More and more technology came out which could keep track of where you were, at any given time. Credit cards, your iPhone GPS, and even Facebook posts (which on phones leave a location tag) all left a digital trail. Even if they do not say much when viewed alone, when combined they provide an incredibly accurate picture of what the average person does throughout the day.

Two new technologies highlight this phenomenon — how privacy is a thing of the past. They make it clear that as more and more tech comes out, there will be less and less room for traditional notions of privacy. These are the Moto X — a phone that knows what you're doing even when you aren't using it — and recycling bins in London that can track and remember people who walk by it. My question is this: When even recycling bins become high-tech, can anyone have a reasonable expectation of privacy anymore?

Let's take the Moto X first. As the Wall Street Journal writes, the phone is "a sort of sentinel, always listening for voice input, periodically displaying the time and notifications, and always waiting to turn on the camera when you twist your wrist — even while it is locked and the screen is off." In addition, the phone can detect when you are in a meeting or a moving car, and adjusts its behavior accordingly. It achieves all this without exhausting the battery one bit. So this is a phone that not only keeps tabs on your location through the traditional means like GPS and Facebook that the iPhone uses; in theory, it could even track what type of environment you are in.

Alas, this is nothing compared to the recycling bins in London. These bins, which were installed by a start-up called Renew before the London Olympics, feature digital screens and promise to bring targeted advertisements to the real world, monitoring the phones of pedestrians who pass by the bins so that advertisers can target people the bins recognize. This seems harmless enough, but recently a dozen of the bins were outfitted with tracking technology. 

As reported in Quartz, the "bins record a unique identification number ... for any nearby phones and other devices that have Wi-Fi turned on. That allows Renew to identify if the person walking by is the same one from yesterday, even her specific route down the street and how fast she is walking." The idea behind this is simple: If the bins find that someone is visiting one coffee shop rather than another, then advertisers selling coffee can target that consumer in an attempt to change their coffee habit. 

Alas, techies on Internet forums have long argued about whether or not these technologies are scary or simple amazing. Magazines like Wired have even labeled the recycling bin technology as "stalking." But I think this is simplifying the matter a bit: This tech isn't scary, so long as it is not abused. 

So are these developments scary or amazing? Let me know in the comments.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Michael Shammas

Second-year Harvard Law student, politico, Breaking Bad fan, cynical idealist, coffee addict, & Duke sports fanatic. Contact me at mshammas@jd16.law.harvard.edu.

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