Visiting Manhattan? Better Turn Off Your Bluetooth.

Minority Report

When I visited Australia this past summer the major department stores (in Melbourne and Brisbane at least) all seemed to offer free WiFi. I subsequently read somewhere that doing this gave stores the ability to track their customers’ movements within the building—presumably to figure out which departments were the most popular, which displays were working, that sort of thing. It would be up to each user to decide if being tracked in this way was worth the free data connection, but at least they were getting something of value out of the deal.

But unless you really like ads, there’s nothing of value for the user in a just-discovered network of Bluetooth tracking beacons in Midtown Manhattan. Nothing, that is, beyond a potential invasion of your privacy.

Beacon Locations

The beacons have been installed in hundreds of public phone booths by TITAN, an outdoor media company which runs print ads on them. Using an off-the-shelf Android app BuzzFeed investigators were able to pinpoint some of the locations where they’ve been deployed.

Granted, a large number of these same phone booths have been re-purposed to offer free WiFi as well. But the beacons uncovered by BuzzFeed use Apple’s iBeacon Bluetooth Low Energy spec specifically. Perhaps more importantly, they were installed without any oversight and are now operating without any notice to passers-by. In public space.

The beacons are manufactured and sold by a company called Gimbal. According to their privacy policy:

Gimbal-powered apps may collect your current location, the time of day you passed the beacon, and details about your device. These apps may also, under certain circumstances, collect data about the websites you visit, the apps on your phone, and the “frequency and duration of app usage.”

Gimbal maintains that their data collection is opt-in only. If that’s true, I have to wonder why the very existence of these beacons was a secret until now. Someone from TITAN is quoted as saying similar beacons have been deployed in other cities as well, but declined to provide any details beyond that.

I myself have only ever had one experience with Bluetooth ads, which actually pre-dated iBeacon by many years: I was wandering through an underground mall with Bluetooth enabled on a Nokia smartphone, and all of a sudden a message took over my screen with a blurb about some sale at a store I was passing. I found it creepy enough to turn off my Bluetooth radio right then and there.

Further Reading:

EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths