Waste watchers? UK group fears trash bin spies

Microchips measure the amount of trash in British garbage cans

Published March 5, 2010 1:26PM (EST)

Monitored by millions of cameras and spied on by a secretive domestic intelligence network, Britons could be forgiven for feeling up in arms over the latest threat to their privacy: Intelligent garbage bins that can monitor how much they throw out.

Although the technology is already nearly a decade old, a U.K. privacy rights group says the number of local authorities fitting their trash bins with sensors of some kind has risen dramatically in the past year -- affecting at least 2.6 million British households.

Big Brother Watch says the practice could lead to Britons being charged for how much they throw out -- and effectively allow the government to go through their garbage.

"Placing microchips in bins capable of monitoring the content of weight of household refuse produces yet another piece of data for the state on an individual's private life it has no right to have," the group said in a report published Friday.

Microchips were first fitted into British trash bins eight years ago, and the debate over whether the state has the right to weigh or otherwise analyze residents' refuse has surfaced periodically since.

In 2006, then-British environment minister Ben Bradshaw told Britons that they might someday have to pay for the amount of waste they produce -- arguing that the practice would push people to waste less, promote recycling and reduce pressure on landfills. His successor David Miliband moved to lift a ban which prevented local officials for offering financial incentives for recycling -- further clearing the way for the use of garbage-monitoring microchips.

The nature of the chips and their exact purpose vary across the country: Some of the chips are intended to sense the weight of the garbage piled into a bin. Others are meant to track the whereabouts of the bin itself, or check whether it has been emptied.

None of the chips are used to charge residents in so-called "pay-as-you-throw" plans -- at least so far.

Even though the practice exists elsewhere in Europe, proposals to charge householders for their trash have almost invariably aroused howls of outrage from Britain's tabloid press.

Britons are already subjects to one of the most intrusive speed and security camera regimes in the Western world, and security officials have lobbied for the power to monitor every e-mail, text, and phone call made in the U.K. Many are loath to let the state intrude on yet another aspect of their day-to-day life.

But Big Brother Watch said the growth in the number of chips meant that local officials "are quietly installing the infrastructure with which to monitor our waste habits, ready to go further when they judge the political and public climate ... to be more amenable."


On the Net:

Big Brother Watch report: http://bit.ly/aNIv2d

By Raphael G. Satter

MORE FROM Raphael G. Satter

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