A company that manages advertising display panels on New York's network of phone booths planted hundreds of radios in them that could enable the tracking -- and marketing to -- of cellphone users around the city.
UPDATE: The city is now saying that it will have the beacons removed from the phone kiosks.
Beacons are typically used by stores to detect when potential shoppers are nearby. Smartphones connect to the beacons via Bluetooth, which can then tag the location of the device. If the user has a store app on their phone and has opted in to the app, the store can send ads and offers to the smartphone. The move by Titan could potentially extend that capability to the streets of New York in the future.
Titan reportedly told the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) of plans to install the beacons in 2013. City officials reportedly agreed to this without a formal review and public disclosure, because Titan said that the beacons were for maintenance purposes, DoITT spokesman Nicholas Sbordone told BuzzFeed.
Titan installed the beacons from September to November 2013. Titan and the city have not revealed the locations of the radios, but they are reportedly heavily concentrated in midtown and downtown. The radios -- made by Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM) spinoff Gimbal -- are being tested now to find out how well they work and alert Titan about displays that need replacing. The DoITT says that wider usage would need more formal consent from the city.
Gimbal beacons require the user to have "opted in" -- usually via a store app -- and have Bluetooth on in order to track them. After that, as the Gimbal software development kit documentation makes clear, the company can track quite a bit of information about the user.
The Gimbal SDK:
- Runs a service in the background that monitors user activity
- Identifies user interests
- Monitors geofences and notifies the client application of geofence [the location boundaries defined by the client] events and content events when the application has configured itself as a listener
- Allows the application to retrieve user interests
Gimbal has an SDK for later Androids and iPhone 4 and up. The beacons have a range of up to 50 meters. The company works to deploy its beacons in malls, stores, stadiums and more, and counts Major League Baseball and GameStop stores among its clients.
Gimbal notes in its end-user privacy agreement that you can turn the tracking features off: "At any time, you can turn Gimbal OFF within Gimbal-Powered Apps," it notes.
Gimbal says that it does not collect your name, phone number, email address, contacts file, or call or text logs. It does collect your location and what time of day you are near a sensor. The interest-sensing features in the SDK -- if enabled -- can further help it to guess at your gender, age range, income range and interests. It stores the data on its servers for up to a year.
You can, of course, turn off the Bluetooth on your phone to stop all this.
— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading