Bluetooth Beacons - consumer boon or Trojan horse?
The biggest privacy danger with beacons occurs when a single company collects data from many beacons.
You may have heard about bluetooth beacons - they first got a lot of press when Apple announced its version. These are small devices that broadcast an ID number using a low-power Bluetooth standard. Both Apple and Android devices can support them.
They are promoted as a boon to stores - plant some beacons in your store, and when customers approach your store, your loyalty app can recognize the beacon, know you are near (or in) your store, and present the phone holder with a store coupon or list of daily specials. The beacons might even know which portion of the store you are in, so you get deli specials when you are in the deli section. Cool, huh?
When beacons were first announced, the industry was quick to point out that a beacon can’t collect information about you - all it can do is broadcast an ID. What the companies usually neglect to mention is that the app that receives and interprets the beacon is just another app on your phone, and the app can do anything with the location data that it wants, including send it somewhere.
So the traditional advice is to configure each app according to your needs. Maybe you don’t mind that your grocery store knows you are there - so you configure your grocery store app to permit beacons. But you might not want the department store chain to have that info - so you turn off beacons in your department store app. Unless your department store app and your grocery store app are configured to recognize each others’ beacons, you have some control over who is collecting information about your store visits.
But what happens if the same app handles beacons for many stores? Now you have far less control over your information. Want to get those grocery coupons? Allow the app to use beacons. But now that app not only tracks your visit to the grocery store, it might also track your visit to the liquor store, the bookstore, and many other places you might visit (or just walk by, if the beacon is placed near the door.)
Facebook wants to be that app that tracks all your moves.
Facebook is building (or perhaps has built) beacon support into the Facebook app. They want stores to use Facebook beacons instead of proprietary store beacons. As an enticement, they are offering free beacons to stores to use - walk into the store, and the Facebook app will light up with store info and/or in store coupons. Of course, to do that, your Facebook app will tell Facebook that you just walked into the grocery store. Or the department store. Or the adult bookstore. Or the liquor store. You get the idea.
And of course, we don’t know what Facebook will ultimately do with this info. The teenage girl who posted that she just broke up with her boyfriend after a huge fight? We may not know what the fight was about, but Facebook might learn that she started visiting Babies R Us stores, and make an educated guess
That employee who is venting on Facebook that he didn’t get the raise he thought he deserved? Only Facebook will be able to correlate that with visits to the coffee shop next door to your biggest competitor.
Sites like Facebook are already tracking your moves around the web. Now Facebook wants to track your moves around the mall.
Ultimately, you will decide (I hope) whether to grant Facebook access to all those beacons. Think carefully.