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BuzzFeed “Hidden Beacons” Story Gets It Almost Totally Wrong
Technical limits of beacons and their capabilities not discussed in story about NYC telephone booth hidden tracking devices.
There’s a lot that the media get wrong when covering location and privacy. A recent example of that is BuzzFeed’s inflammatory story about “hidden” tracking devices in some of New York City’s phone booths.
The story was widely picked up and plays into the “surveillance state” meme that has persisted since the NSA-Snowden revelations.
It’s right for people to be vigilant about privacy but often well-intentioned writers paint with too broad a brush or don’t bother to get the full story. This particular story focuses on the “conspiratorial” dimension of the beacon installation and fails to understand several important technical limitations of beacons.
Published on Sunday, the BuzzFeed piece exposed what appeared to be a nefarious plot by outdoor ad provider Titan to establish a Bluetooth beacon network in some of the city’s phone booths:
A company that controls thousands of New York City’s phone booth advertising displays has planted tiny radio transmitters known as “beacons” — devices that can be used to track people’s movements — in hundreds of pay phone booths in Manhattan, BuzzFeed News has learned.
And it’s all with the blessing of a city agency — but without any public notice, consultation, or approval …
But the spread of beacon technology to public spaces could turn any city into a giant matrix of hidden commercialization — and vastly deepen the network of surveillance that has already grown out of technologies ranging from security cameras to cell phone towers.
Hidden commercialization. Network of surveillance. Pretty scary stuff.
After the BuzzFeed report came out the mayor’s office asked Titan to remove the beacons. The story goes on to discuss some of the technical capabilities of the underlying beacons, manufactured by Gimbal a spin-off of Qualcomm.
Titan had said that the beacons were being tested and currently not being used for any advertising or offline analytics purposes. It’s true that ultimately this could have formed a proximity based ad network. But here’s what the story doesn’t understand or discuss:
- Beacons cannot transmit any information to users who don’t have an app installed — no app, no ads
- Beacons are “dumb”: they simply send out signals (“$1 off on a large pizza”) within a limited radius
- There’s no individual information that can be collected without a pre-installed app; however with an app a great deal of information about the phone is visible to the developer or publisher
- For its iBeacon specification Apple requires explicit user opt-in consent for an app to capture location; this was recently enhanced in iOS 8 to give users more control and transparency
At most Titan might have been able to see general numbers of smartphones passing by these phone booths and the time of day, day of week, but essentially nothing more. Without a user installing an app and opting-in to receive location-based notifications, the Titan beacons wouldn’t have been able to “track” individual users or send any information to them.
In addition, users could easily have turned off the notifications or uninstalled whatever app utilized the beacons — thus nullifying the supposed “hidden commericalization.” Had these things been pointed out the story would have lost its impact.
The prospect of a network of “tracking devices” throughout a city is a scary one. However beacons, such as in the BuzzFeed story, are not to be feared. Your smartphone’s GPS, its proximity to WiFi hotspots and cell towers can already be tracked by police. And your carrier knows your phone’s location history by default.
Beacons don’t add anything to this.
Earlier this year the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police need a search warrant to obtain mobile phone location data from carriers. This was a significant victory for smartphone user privacy.
Beacons and related offline-location technologies have a lot to offer merchants and consumers. Survey data have consistently shown that while users don’t want to be “tracked,” based on location, they will share location for offers and personalized content.
There’s a lot going on “behind the scenes” with mobile-location. There’s no question that user-location history is extremely valuable to marketers; it helps define audience segments and set up ad targeting. And location analytics are equally valuable to marketers for attribution and ROI purposes. (Indoor location is a vast new area as well.)
There’s also a lot of sophisticated data matching going on in the background tied to mobile-location and location history. The involved companies all say they’re privacy compliant and the data avoid PII. Almost all of this activity is totally unknown to users — and to journalists.
These practices need to be clearly understood and explained. Apple’s new location notifications are part of this process.
Had BuzzFeed dug a little deeper and really understood the limitations of beacons and the degree to which users have control here, the story would not have been as “exciting” — or as likely to be shared.