Hundreds of beacons — devices that can be used by advertisers to push out messages to smartphones and potentially track users’ movements — have been installed inside phone booths across Manhattan without the consent of New Yorkers, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found.
Beacon devices are growing in popularity among advertisers, particularly retailers, who have been installing the hardware in-store to trigger location-based messages such as coupons, store maps, and contactless payments on customers’ smartphone apps. The beacons constantly broadcast a Bluetooth low-energy radio signal in order to beam data to a user’s phone.
Right now, the beacons are “test phase,” so we don’t know exactly how they are being used, but there are future implications for consumers. In theory, it means that people who have downloaded compatible apps — from brands or retailers that are already using this particular type of beacon — may start receiving advertising messages from those brands as they walk down the street on their smartphones. There is also the potential that those brands could start collecting data about those users as they pass the beacons, although it has not yet been confirmed what the phone box beacons will be used for.
BuzzFeed has discovered that outdoor media company Titan, which sells advertising space designed to target “people in transit,” has installed 500 of the beacons in phone booths across the city. The move was approved by city agency the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).
That installation was given the green light without notifying or consulting residents because Titan was installing the beacons for “maintenance purpose only,” a DoITT spokesman told BuzzFeed News. Any “explicit commercialization” of the beacons would require more formal city approval, the report says.
But a vocal privacy campaigner and the founder of a beacons technology company both told BuzzFeed News there should have been more transparency with residents about the program about the hidden devices.
Gimbal beacons currently require the download of a third-party app to trigger advertisements and they also ask for opt-in permission from users in order to collect data and send notifications to their phones.
Brands including GameStop and Major League Baseball are among Gimbal’s current customers, which could potentially mean users who have downloaded those brands’ respective apps previously could unexpectedly start receiving targeted advertising from them as they pass through Manhattan.
BI Intelligence forecasts there will be 4.5 million beacons active in the US by 2018, with the majority of those (3.5 million) installed by retailers.
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