Thursday, 31 August 2006

Bugs in our Wheely Bins

Electronic spy 'bugs' have been secretly planted in hundreds of thousands of household wheelie bins.

The gadgets - mostly installed by companies based in Germany - transmit information about the contents of the bins to a central database which then keeps records on the waste disposal habits of each individual address.

Already some 500,000 bins in council districts across England have been fitted with the bugs - with nearly all areas expected to follow suit within the next couple of years.

Until now, the majority of bins have been altered without the knowledge of their owners. In many cases, councils which ordered the installation of the devices did not even debate the proposals publicly.

The official reason for the bugs is to 'improve efficiency' and settle disputes between neighbours over wheelie-bin ownership. But experts say the technology is actually intended to enable councils to impose fines on householders who exceed limits on the amount of non-recyclable waste they put out. New powers for councils to do this are expected to be introduced by the Government shortly.

But the revelation that the bins have already been altered ignited a 'Bin Brother' row over privacy and taxes. Conservative MP Andrew Pelling said burglars could hack into the computer system to see if sudden reductions in waste at individual households meant the owners were on holiday and the property empty.

He said: 'This is nothing more than a spy in the bin and I don't think even the old Soviet Union made such an intrusion into people's personal lives.

'It is Big Brother gone mad. I think a more British way of doing things is to seek to persuade people rather than spy on them.'

With the bugging technology, the electronic chips are carefully hidden under the moulded front 'lip' of wheelie bins used by householders for non-recyclable waste. As the bin is raised by the mechanical hoister at the back of the truck, the chip passes across an antenna fitted to the lifting mechanism. That enables the antenna to 'read' a serial number assigned to each property in the street.

A computer inside the truck weighs the bin as it is raised, subtracts the weight of the bin itself and records the weight of the contents on an electronic data card.

When the truck returns to the depot, all the information collected on the round is transmitted to a hand-held device and downloaded on to the council's centralised computer. Each household can be billed for the amount of waste collected - even though they have already paid for the services through their council tax.

Although the chip itself is worth only about £2, fitting the equipment to a dustcart costs around £15,000.

Town hall chiefs say the monitoring system will improve recycling rates by allowing them to identify areas which are not doing enough.