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Payphones cluttering our streets have a sinister side

18 January, 2019

• VARIOUS telecom­munication companies have the right to place their payphones on the streets of Islington subject to planning permission. These planning applications have been pouring in over the last three years. As a result, the planning department has been put under severe pressure.

But why are there so many applications? A recent application boasts of the following facilities, which is perhaps a clue: “24-hour, internally illuminated, 2.6 metre high advertising screens, presence detection, pedestrian flow detection, collision detection, voice recognition, camera and CCTV, free wi-fi.” There are also beacons (“the tiny little devices placed inside stores and phone boxes that transmit Bluetooth low-energy signals to send advertising messages to consumers’ mobile phones”) and speaker and static/dynamic NFC (“Near field communication is a short-range wireless connection that allows for sharing data between several devices, as well as accessing information and carrying out commercial transactions”).

It is very difficult not to conclude from the above that street payphones are not primarily about making phone calls, which in this day and age cannot generate much income. The payphones seem to be set up to advertise and, unknown to us, gather information about us that can be sold to generate income.

We know that large tech companies do this and we know that one of the tele­commun­ication companies with payphones on our streets has links to Google. In the light of data protection and invasion of privacy regulations the question is: are they acting illegally. Islington’s legal and planning departments do not feel that this aspect falls within their remit, but it would be good to have a legal opinion.

When these planning applications started to be made, payphones were seen as merely increasing street clutter. Payphones remain street clutter, but they have now taken on a whole new sinister role.

Secretary, The Islington Society


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