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NYC Phone Sensor Network to Be Dismantled

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.

BuzzFeed is reporting that outdoor ad space company Titan, which manages more than 5,000 panels in phone booths around NYC, has installed Bluetooth "beacons" in 500 locations in Manhattan.

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.

Creeped out yet? Well, read up with the latest on the growth of smart sensors on our dedicated IoT channel here on Light Reading.

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.

"We may share your information with agents, service providers, vendors, contractors, or affiliates who process the data only on our behalf for the purposes set forth in this Policy," Gimbal says in its extensive privacy policy.

You can, of course, turn off the Bluetooth on your phone to stop all this.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

DanJones 10/7/2014 | 4:09:36 PM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths Yeah, seems like they might be better off spinning off a "serious buzz" news site and not crossing the streams, doesn't it.
KBode 10/7/2014 | 2:37:14 PM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths I had no idea. I was impressed with this piece, and thought they traditionally stuck to stories like "27 Signs You Are Actually Batman" :)


DanJones 10/7/2014 | 1:21:36 PM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths They've been hiring people away from NYT and ProPublica for more hard hitting news stories AFAIK.
KBode 10/7/2014 | 1:11:08 PM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths I am kind of fascinated that Buzzfeed took time away from posting celebrity gossip and Kardashian photos to do this excellent reporting! :)
DanJones 10/7/2014 | 11:51:25 AM
Re: who owns the phone booths? Titan has been buying up the koisks for a good while now. It bought 1,900 from Verizon in NYC in summer 2010.
DanJones 10/7/2014 | 11:48:32 AM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths Appears to have been Titan's.
Mitch Wagner 10/7/2014 | 11:08:03 AM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths Good grief, whose terrible idea was this?
mhhf1ve 10/6/2014 | 10:40:30 PM
who owns the phone booths? Does the city really have the authority to determine what goes on in a phone booth? hmm. I supposed the city originally licensed the booths.... 
Ariella 10/6/2014 | 7:44:44 PM
Re: NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths I think something similar occurred in London a year or so ago. There was a plan to put sensors in garbage cans to pick up on signals from pedestrians, but it was nixed. 
DanJones 10/6/2014 | 5:10:14 PM
NYC asks for beacons to be removed from phone booths NYC has asked for beacons to be removed from phone booths.
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