Councils are rolling out wheelie bins bugged with RFID chips

YOUR rubbish could be spying on you. As well as guarding your grime it might be disclosing your dirty habits. Your wheelie could be revealing all.

Residents in Sydney's inner west were surprised this month when the local council began replacing municipal bins, many of which in perfect working order.

They were even more surprised when it was revealed there was a hidden addition to their shiny new bin. And it was telling council about all their filthy habits.

Sydney's Inner West council has begun rolling out 35,000 new wheelie bins. Just under the rim in the new bins, away from prying eyes, is a small circular device - a Radio Frequency Identification Device, or RFID, tag.

It's part of the increasing march of the so-called 'internet of things' which sees everyday objects - from fridges to kettles collect data on how they are used. Connected fridges can tell when products are expiring, connected bins could tell when you haven't done enough recycling.

Privacy expert David Vaile has told the unwillingness of organisations to reveal exactly why they need all this extra information meant it was "quite reasonable for people to be concerned ... in the absence of transparency".

Example of an RFID bin tag, which are about the size of a 20c piece, and placed beneath the rim.
Example of an RFID bin tag, which are about the size of a 20c piece, and placed beneath the rim. Supplied


The Inner West council is not alone. If anything, they're pretty late to the game. Sydney's Randwick and Ryde councils are among many across Australia that already tag their bins and British cities have had what is sometimes know as is "bin bugs" for a decade or more.

In a statement, Inner West council told tagging technology was a "standard feature in mobile garbage bins." Their bin bugs were used for "identification" purposes and could detect households which "contaminate" their recycle bins.

"It is an asset management tool allowing councils to monitor their bin infrastructure. Should a resident advise that their bin has been missed, Council has real time information to identify whether all bins on that street are yet to be emptied, if the bin has already been collected, or the reason why the bin may not have been collected."

The various tags work in different ways but one version is activated when the bin is hoisted off the ground to be emptied. As the contents are tipped out, the chip passes an antenna revealing its unique ID number.

The lifting mechanism then weighs each bin. If a bin is deemed too full, or indeed if a recycling bin seems too empty, the waste contractor instantly knows what household the bin belongs too.

A quick scan will also see if a waste receptacle has grown a mind of its own and wheeled itself away to a neighbouring street.

But it's the secrecy involved which has concerned some.

Some British councils have got in hot water for squirrelling the tags under the rims without informing residents.

While a poll taken in 2009 by Britain's Big Brother Watch, admittedly an organisation whose name suggests they are not predisposed to monitoring technology, found that more than 82 per cent of people opposed putting microchips in bins to encourage recycling.

Mr Vaile is the executive director of the University of New South Wales' Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre. He sympathised with local residents' concerns.

"I wouldn't call it paranoia, even if everything was fully clear and disclosed people would still worry, but they over react in the absence of transparency.

"It's quite reasonable for people to be concerned about the governance of that information and what it is going to be used for."

He said while, initially, there might be a tight remit around what the information was used for, over time "data creep" might see it used for other purposes. It wouldn't be too difficult for someone monitoring the data to know if a particular household had gone on holidays because of the low weight of their rubbish, he said.

"Will this info be shared? Where will it be stored? It's a massive pool of apparently low value information but it can be potentially bundled up with other information and there can be unexpected and unintended consequences."

In some countries, households are charged depending on the weight of their rubbish. Inner West said they had "no plans to move to a pay by weight system".

On the Inner West council website, a page about the new bins explains that the introduction of the RFID technology is used to identify bins and "educate people about the correct way to dispose of their waste."

However, no mention of the tags was made on social media posts regarding the bins' rollout, a flyer sent to residents or a letter physically attached to the bin - despite the tag being just centimetres away.

Mr Vaile said companies and government organisations tended to downplay the use of data collection technology while privacy statements, setting out how the data would be used, were often only up to a bare minimum standard or completely lacking.

Writing for The Conversation in October, Associate Professor in Business Information Systems at the University of Sydney, Uri Gal, said the amount of data collected on individuals had serious implications for free will.

"Data surveillance has become increasingly invasive and its scope has broadened with the proliferation of the internet of things [that] expands surveillance to our homes, cars, and daily activities by harvesting data from smart and mobile devices."

These "digital traces" were collected and sometimes sold or shared without the knowledge of the people whose data had been collected. This information could then be used to "nudge" people into certain behaviours - like recycling more.

"More of our behaviours will be evaluated and 'corrected'. With this disciplinary drive becoming routine, there is a danger we will start to accept it as the norm, and pattern our own behaviour to comply with external expectations, to the detriment of our free will."

But if we're already giving our data away on social media should we even worry about what our bins are reporting? Dr Vaile said we should.

"People have given up their rights on social media in a deal they might not accept or even understand. But just because they have done that, doesn't mean they shouldn't be wary about their privacy being used in other ways."

News Corp Australia

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