Earlier this month, Buzzfeed broke an exclusive report on hidden beacons installed in New York City phone booths. This week, Buzzfeed revealed these devices were also installed in public spaces in Los Angeles and Chicago.
What are “Beacons?”
The exposed beacons were all manufactured by Gimbal, a company spun off earlier this year by San Diego communications giant, Qualcomm. Focusing on geolocation beacon technology, the beacons Gimbal creates are compatible to Apple’s iBeacon technology while competing for the same market share. Known more specifically as “proximity beacons,” they employ low-energy Bluetooth Smart technology and are accurate to one foot in gauging the presence of a nearby phone.
So what does this mean in conjunction with the hidden Gimbal beacons? Buzzfeed draws the conclusion that these beacons “reveal a broad initiative by Gimbal to quietly partner with outdoor advertising companies in major American cities. And they clarify the extent to which technology companies, cities, and brand have begun experimenting with new forms of commercial persuasion, with scant public notice.”
Though Gimbal stresses that the beacons themselves do not collect any information, their mere presence indicates a shift in current beacon marketing practices. The Gimbal beacons must be partnered with an app that requires a customer to effectively “opt-in” before any marketing messages are sent. Traditional beacon-based marketing is generally deployed indoors or within the confines of a stadium or arena. In these instances, beacons push information – like where the shortest lines are, or promotions like coupons or sales. The revelation of hidden beacons in public spaces brings to light the potential privacy intrusions. Though Gimbal emphasizes that the beacons can only collect information about Gimbal-enabled devices, it highlights the need for new regulations, particularly in regards to registering wireless boosters and beacons for public discovery.