Microchips in Bins

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As with many aspects of mass surveillance, the tracking of bins stems from a seemingly innocuous - even virtuous - motive. In this case, the system dates back to the Labour administration who permitted South Norfolk council to fit tracking chips to their bins in 2002 and awarded a £1.1 million grant through DEFRA to cover the cost of acquiring new bins with built in radio frequency identification (RFID) chips. Perhaps the most familiar use of this technology is in the tagging of pets, enabling them to be identified or tracked if they are found or lost respectively.

The data collected through these chips was seen as a prelude to 'pay as you throw' schemes under which councils could charge households according to the amount of waste they produced, as measured by weight.

Using this charging model would, it was (and is) argued, motivate households to cut down on waste and thus help the government meet ambitious targets - largely set by the EU - for waste reduction.

By 2010, it was reported that over 2.6 million bins were fitted with such RFID chips - although no council has yet taken the decision to charge using the pay as you throw model.

To privacy campaigners and those who distrust the state in general, the stated aims of the technology are a flimsy pretext to further normalise the routine collection of personal data. Bin collection data could easily be used to reveal whether and when a house was occupied - information which no authority has a legitimate right to know. As a slew of recent incidents have shown, such information can easily find its way into the public domain through leakage or lax security.

On a broader, more philosophical level, it speaks strongly of the assumption to collect private information by state agents that is seen throughout other mass surveillance systems such as PRISM or ECHELON. While perhaps the implications are not so immediately worrying, the presumption of a right to secretly monitor and inspect our behaviour is seen by many as a worrying trend towards a full surveillance state. With the rising tide of officials who are deemed to have quasi legal powers to inspect private behaviour and levy fines without judicial or democratic oversight, it isn't hard to see how seemingly innocuous schemes like microchip bin tracking could be misused.

Interestingly, the first council to adopt the scheme - South Norfolk - abandoned it in 2007, stating:

"The data we have is unreliable and inaccurate. We have no confidence in it and nor should our residents."

Advocates of mass surveillance and technological identifiers often operate on the assumption that technology is failsafe and that data is always inherently useful. In fact - as shown in recent terrorist incidents such as 7/7 - with too much untargeted data to process with human eyes, more real and imminent problems can be overlooked in the desire to automate mass data interrogation.

Further information has come from FOI request to various councils. Belfast Council justified the use of chips on the following grounds:

"You will note that there is no reference to legislation, byelaws or policy regarding the collection of bins without chips. The reason for the statement you refer to, is that the technology on the back of the recycling lorry will prevent a blue bin been lifted useless it recognises the chip on the bin. This helps us reduce the possibility of contamination."

Notice that there is confirmation that there is NO legal basis for councils to fail to collect bins without tracking systems. Also note (as did the person who requested the information) that actually, the tracking would not actually help the stated aim: i.e. 'reducing the possibility of contamination' as no chip system could possibly detect the contents of the bin in any case.

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Author: Ian Freud   |  Last updated: 20th August 2013 | © Weird Island 2010-2019
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