Oct/Nov 2013

I’m sorry to return to the topic of personal privacy so soon, but there’s a new threat to consider. It’s called “smart trash.”

Smart trash involves tagging every household item that might end up in the trash—rom juice boxes to mobile phones—with a tracking tag that identifies where it is, what type of material it’s made from, and how it should be treated in the “removal chain.” As described by Daniel Obodovski in his “Smart Trash” post on Cisco’s CityMinded blog, the removal chain is the flip side of the “supply chain.” Instead of focusing on efficiencies in delivering products, the removal chain focuses on efficiencies in the disposal of goods, such as diverting recyclable and toxic waste items to appropriate facilities, keeping hazardous items out of landfills, and providing trash operators with valuable intelligence they can use to improve operations and reduce costs.

Smart trash includes a wide range of companies and services, such as 2013 Connected World magazine Value Chain Award winner Big Belly Solar. The company’s smart public trash cans notify collectors when they need to be emptied. Dozens of cities provide homeowners with RFID-tagged recycling bins to track how often citizens set the bins out for collection, and may issue coupons or credits for participating in recycling programs. Once tagged trash is collected, it’s sent through automated facilities that sort and route it.

Even with smart trash’s obvious operational and environmental benefits, it scares me. “Trash pulls” have long been used by law enforcement, jilted lovers, and spies to gain information about a person of interest. Think about it: Have you ever disposed of an item in the lunchroom trash can, or your neighbor’s, because you didn’t want a member of your team or family finding it? Our trash says a lot about us, and with smart trash, it can say a lot about us for a long time. Obodovski recounts a smart-trash trial between Qualcomm and the MIT Media lab, during which tags assigned to trash continued to transmit their location and status for up to five months.

The “Big Data” crowd already knows so much about us, and earlier this year we learned the U.S. government has joined the fray with its controversial PRISM domestic intelligence gathering program. Private companies have been mining our voluntarily provided online and mobile data much more deeply than PRISM for a long time. They know, based on our computer’s IP address, our computer or phone’s MAC address, and other identifiers, where we go, with whom we communicate, what we search and buy, what apps and Websites we use, and how long we use them. Google, Facebook, and other Internet service providers mine our contacts, email messages, and search histories to build rich, individual profiles that they use to target advertising to us wherever we go and on whatever device we use.

But now our trash, too? While it’s clearly not their intention, collecting tagged trash from tagged barrels creates a data-mining opportunity that could hold great value for marketers. And law enforcement. And spies. For marketers, smart trash presents the opportunity to fully close the loop: They can already trace an advertising impression to a store or online visit to a purchase. With smart trash, they can also know something about how the item was actually consumed: when, where, and potentially by whom. What’s next? Smart sewers?

Fortunately, compiling this data into a format that’s useful for marketers, cops, or spies isn’t as easy as it looks on TV. Linking trash collected from a particular household to its origin is complicated, even without considering trash disposed of away from the home. That said, personal information gleaned from trash analysis could unlock a universe of data that might make us uncomfortable if we understood its depth and breadth. It’s yet another personal data set users should have the ability to review or limit.

So the next time you put something in the trash, think about this: What might your trash be saying about you?

Laurie Lamberth dutifully sets out her recycling bin every week, usually on the way out to see a client. Learn about her strategic marketing and business development consultancy at www.laurielamberth.com

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