Did you know that companies use the Bluetooth capabilities on your phone to track your movements in retail stores, gyms, airports, and more? I didn’t.
Turning Bluetooth off doesn’t stop them.
(Re-tweeting because my last tweet contained an error.)https://t.co/qRdcpErVb4
— Susan Fowler (@susanthesquark) June 14, 2019
Recent reports have noted how companies use data gathered from cell towers, ambient Wi-Fi, and GPS. But the location data industry has a much more precise, and unobtrusive, tool: Bluetooth beacons.
Most people aren’t aware they are being watched with beacons, but the “beacosystem” tracks millions of people every day. Beacons are placed at airports, malls, subways, buses, taxis, sporting arenas, gyms, hotels, hospitals, music festivals, cinemas and museums, and even on billboards.
Companies like Reveal Mobile collect data from software development kits inside hundreds of frequently used apps. In the United States, another company, inMarket, covers 38 percent of millennial moms and about one-quarter of all smartphones, and tracks 50 million people each month. Other players have similar reach.
What is an S.D.K.?A Software Development Kit is code that’s inserted into an app and enables certain features, like activating your phone’s Bluetooth sensor. Location data companies create S.D.K.s and developers insert them into their apps, creating a conduit for recording and storing your movement data.
Beacons are also being used for smart cities initiatives. The location company Gimbal provided beacons for LinkNYC kiosks that provoked privacy concerns about tracking passers-by. Beacon initiatives have been started in other cities, including Amsterdam (in partnership with Google), London and Norwich.
Familiar tech giants are also players in the beacosystem. In 2015, Facebook began shipping free Facebook Bluetooth beacons to businesses for location marketing inside the Facebook app. Leaked documents show that Facebook worried that users would “freak out” and spread “negative memes” about the program. The company recently removed the Facebook Bluetooth beacons section from their website.
Not to be left out, in 2017, Google introduced Project Beacon and began sending beacons to businesses for use with Google Ads services. Google uses the beacons to send the businesses’ visitors notificationsthat ask them to leave photos and reviews, among other features. And last year, investigators at Quartz found that Google Android can track you using Bluetooth beacons even when you turn Bluetooth off in your phone.
Companies collecting micro-location data defend the practice by arguing that users can opt out of location services. They maintain that consumers embrace targeted ads because they’re more relevant.
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.
The Times’s guide on how to stop apps from tracking your location. For Android users, the F-Droid app store hosts free and open- source apps that do not spy on users with hidden trackers.
More on surveillance in this IMS Blog