Needed: Best (or At Least Better) Practices for Beacon Deployments

Everyone in the beacon ecosystem, from marketers to infrastructure providers to app developers, can find teachable moments in New York City's decision to pull a network of beacons from its phone booths.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Oct 15, 2014

Last week, Buzzfeed ran a lengthy story about a large network of Bluetooth beacons deployed in Manhattan. The headline rang: "Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths."

Through an arrangement with the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), Titan—a company that sells advertising space in public spaces, such as transit terminals and phone booths-cum-information kiosks—late last year began installing beacons on phone booth kiosks around the borough. According to Buzzfeed, Titan said it was using the beacons, made by Qualcomm spinoff Gimbal, largely to see how well they worked.

The city gave Titan a green light to install the beacons without any public discourse or notification. In another investigation conducted by the New York Daily News, Donna Lieberman, the New York Civil Liberties Union's executive director, characterized the beacon deployment as a "data-mining operation" that "has to be suspended pending an open process about what's going on."

Neither the Buzzfeed nor Daily News stories mentioned that beacons do not collect any data, but rather broadcast their unique identifiers, which only Bluetooth-enabled phones running third-party applications—which a user has downloaded—receives. Both articles elicited fears that Titan or the city, or both, have sinister aims. Reads the Daily News: "Privacy advocates warn the deal could turn the Big Apple into a giant data-mining matrix, and deepen the already vast network of surveillance tools used by law enforcement agencies."

Unsurprisingly, the DoITT office quickly announced it was asking Titan to yank the beacons, despite Titan spokesperson Dave Etherington telling the newspaper his company "is 'absolutely, categorically not' collecting data from phones that pass by their booths."

It would, of course, be impossible for Titan to collect data from phones anyway, unless it created an app using Gimbal's software development kit.

Surely, these two sensationalistic news pieces will not be the death knell for beacon deployments. Yet, the city's reaction and decision to pull the beacons are important because, as I learned from Gimbal's chief operation officer, Kevin Hunter (with whom I coincidentally met the day the Buzzfeed story broke), public spaces are a big growth area target for beacons.

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