Beacons Are Watching You

Ah, the wonderful world of high-technology mechanics.  How things really work, is there a more engrossing and satisfying enterprise?  This time we are back to push notifications on your precious smartphone.  “As you approach the dairy aisle, you are sent a push notification in your phone:  ’10 percent off your favorite yogurt! Click here to redeem your coupon.’  You considered buying yogurt on your last trip to the store, but you decided against it.  How did your phone know?”  So begins an essay by Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, and host of the Tech Empire podcast.  Kwet continues:  The grocery store got your location data and paid a shadowy group of marketers to use that information to target you with ads.”  But how do they get such precise location data?  Cell phone towers or GPS can’t deliver.  It is a technology called Bluetooth beacons.  “Those beacons are small, unobtrusive electronic devices that are hidden throughout the grocery store; an app on your phone that communicates with them informed the company not only that you had entered the building, but that you had lingered for two minutes in front of the low-fat Chobanis”, whatever they are.  “Bluetooth beacons can track your location from a range of inches to about 50 meters [about 163 feet].”   The beacon signal is detected by the apps on the smartphone, which then use the phone’s OS to scan for nearby beacons.  If a beacon is detected, it notifies the app, even if the app is closed. Once the app recognizes the beacon, it sends data on the products you walked by or the departments you lingered in back to the company’s server.  “Foot traffic information can reveal personal details such as your income and exercise habits.  When paired with other information about you, companies can build a rich profile of who you are, where you are, and what you buy–all without your knowledge.”  And they are everywhere.  Kwet reports that they are in airports, malls, subways, buses, taxis, sporting arenas, gyms, hotels, hospitals, music festivals, cinemas, museums, and billboards.

It just gets more and more disturbing.  “In order to track you or trigger an action like a coupon or message to your phone, companies need you to install an app on your phone…but retailers want to make sure most of their customers are tracked–not just the ones that download their own particular app.  So a hidden industry of third-party location-marketing firms has proliferated…these companies take their beacon tracking code and bundle it into a toolkit developers can use.  The makers of many popular apps, such as those for news or weather updates, insert these toolkits into their apps.  They might be paid by the beacon companies or receive other benefits, like detailed reports on their users.  Location data companies collect additional data provided by apps.  A location company called Pulsate, for example, encourages app developers to pass them customer email addresses and names.” And the scope of this enterprise has reached astounding proportions.  A company called inMarket covers 38 percent of millennial moms and about one-quarter of all smartphones and tracks 50 million people each month.

And now we can talk about “mindset marketing”.  This science predicts when individuals are most receptive to ads, based on statistical probabilities calculated through millions of observations.  “Brands like Hellman’s, Heineken and Hillshire Farms have used these technologies to drive product campaigns.”

Kwet then goes into more detail about the mechanics of Bluetooth technology as it apples to tracking.  He reports that beacons are used with Google Ads services.  Google uses the beacons to send businesses’ visitors notifications that ask them to leave photos and reviews.  Investigators at a consumer advocacy company named Quartz found that Google Android can track you using Bluetooth even when you turn Bluetooth off in your phone.  Kwet points out at this juncture that although Apple has a less sinister reputation on customer surveillance than Google, Facebook et al, they were the ones that invented the Bluetooth system of commercial surveillance.

The issue of informed consent is then broached.  Companies claim that they are engaging in fair practices of informed consent in deploying this technology. But Kwet begs to differ.  “For informed consent using beacons, you have to first know that the beacons exist.  Then, you have to know which places use them, but venues and stores don’t put up signs or inform their customers.  You can download an app like Beacon Scanner and scan for beacons when you enter a store.  But even if you detect the beacons, you don’t know who is collecting the data.”  There is no transparency.    Kwet concludes with a takeaway:  “Most of our concerns about privacy are tied to the online world, and can feel theoretical at times.  But there is nothing theoretical about Bluetooth beacon technology that follows you into retail stores and tracks your movement down to the meter.”

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