This is not “Minority Report.” Tom Cruise isn't going to come barrelling down the street at high speeds after you. We are not descending into a depressing, distopian future. The topic, Beacons and privacy, is another iteration of the apprehension and confusion following a new shiny piece of technology. It's not as interesting as "Minority Report," but the discussion sure helps to clear the air.
Beacons usher in new opportunities for technological advancement and engagement. Such innovation, however, is accompanied by understandable misunderstandings of the somewhat vague concerns of degraded personal privacy as a result of beacon technology.
Beacon technology comes in all shapes and sizes. here's a 101 to catch up on the tech
Do beacons raise legitimate privacy concerns? People are always concerned about something, but do you want to go with what the grapevine whispers, or what experts on the subject say?
Experts agree; Is there any reason to be concerned? No. Not a bit.
Are beacons comparable to other technological advancements? Yes. RFID received comparable flak. So did GPS. Now, not having google maps on your phone is like living in the stone age.
But there's more to discuss. What type of data do beacons broadcast? How do beacons work? As our world becomes more connected, there are ethical, social, and political discussions around how to appropriately protect a user’s privacy, but to what extent are beacons capturing user data? What do beacons actually know about you? The truth is, not much.
As we explore these questions below, we affirm that vis-a-vis other forms of localization technology, beacons swing the privacy pendulum furthest toward the consumer. In other words, beacon technology puts end users squarely in control.
As human beings, we are wired to be careful of the unknown, and so, technology has often raised an eyebrow or two with its potential to “revolutionize” our lifestyle. Not too long ago, innovations such as cell phone cameras, web browsers, RFID, and even GPS once sent panic waves throughout society because they were perceived to infringe on our privacy.
A 2015 study conducted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) dubbed this as the “privacy panic cycle.” The panic cycle usually begins with a positive reception to a promising technology. Then, as a few cohorts amplify a palpable fear, people become prone to alarming claims because of their unfamiliarity with the technology. Everyone is suddenly wearing tin foil hats.
At this stage, proponents of the technology (like us)work hard to educate people and make necessary clarifications. Finally, as the public understands the technology, the value of the technology itself overshadows prior amplified fears.
A case in point is the fervor over radio-frequency identification (RFID). It began as a simple solution to track a store’s supply of items. Then privacy concerns emerged, as people began to imagine businesses or the government using RFID tags to track not only your purchases but also your location.
You've seen them in the pages of books, attached to clothes, everywhere in retail - they've become antitheft devices for the 21st century.
Hilarious tin foil hat enthusiasts produced sensationalist literature like Spychips; fictional worlds are painted in which RFID devices are embedded in clothing and consumables towards the eventual obliteration of privacy. Big Brother looms ever larger on the horizon. Tom Cruise is going to get you.
But considering the ubiquity of RFID today, what was all that fuss about?
Today, RFID is widely adopted without the once professed degradation of personal privacy. Organizations have created guidelines and safeguards for the limited and secure use of RFID in many industrial verticals. RFID tags are now ubiquitous in consumer settings; when the cashier at Macy’s scans an item, he or she may be scanning an RFID tag on it. Beacons will follow a similar pattern beginning with first a general understanding of how they function.
Understanding how beacons work alleviates privacy concerns
During the last two years, beacon technology has accelerated into our lives and is yet another new technology that the public must come to terms. We could be at the very beginning of the beacon privacy panic cycle. To help alleviate such concerns, and to grow the knowledge and understanding of this emerging beacon industry, we decided to a publish this article to explain beacon technology, highlight its value, and discuss privacy issues.
Beacons do not transmit user data or track people
There is a common misconception that beacons track your whereabouts in a store or building. Beacons do not collect user data; nor do they track you.
First let us revisit the natural definition of a beacon:
"a lighthouse or other signal for guidance"
A beacon transmits radio signals announcing itself and, more importantly, its own location to any nearby devices, such as your smartphone.
You then can permit certain apps on your phone to use the beacon locations signals as a guide to figure out your phone's actual location relative to the known location of the beacon.
So if you are standing next to our Outlet, the authorized app can use the beacon's location signal to deduce its location without using GPS or even WiFi.
Imagine you are attending a conference on the 12th-floor of a building and need some immediate medical assistance. Also, imagine you have installed the beacon-aware app called "Help!" and used it to call for help.
Instead of relying on GPS to determine your location, the app would detect many Bluetooth beacon signals from nearby Outlets or Plugs. The strongest calibrated signal would provide proximity based information. Specifically, assuming an Outlet on the 12th-floor was determined to be in proximity, then a simple look-up would over a dispatchable location to you: Equinox Building, 1200 New York, Washington, DC, 20002; 12th Floor; near room 302.
Beacons as infrastructure can provide detailed, granular localization information to any application. This information is also substantially easier to understand than the coordinate system used by GPS.
With granular location comes tighter security and policy regulations.
Just as your web browsing history may be shared among websites, your physical whereabouts may also be shared among apps from different organizations. As such, apps always disclose their respective policies on privacy and data use.
Apps using beacons must have explicit opt-in permission from a user before “listening” for Bluetooth beacons. Even if permitted, periodic alerts are triggered that notify you of such activity with the option to revoke localization permissions.
Neither GPS nor WiFi, grant end users this level of control over tracking and localization, making beacons the obvious privacy-pro choice. The end user is ultimately still in control. So, now that you've gotten this far, why not see what we're on about. We're happy to answer further questions about beacons and privacy, beacon technology broadly, and more specific questions about what beacons can enable.