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Understanding Beacons and Their Privacy Implications

A few years ago many people, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, asserted that attitudes toward privacy were changing. The argument went that people were become more “open” and willing to share information.

That was largely wishful thinking. People are as concerned about privacy today as they’ve ever been — in fact more so in some respects. However, according to recent Pew research, 91% of adults in the survey “agree” or “strongly agree” with the idea that consumers have lost control over how personal information is collected and used by companies.

Consumers are clearly concerned about how their data are being used commercially. By the same token, when presented with a clear value exchange most consumers will offer personal information, including location, to gain a reward or improved user experience. This has been well documented. In the same Pew survey 55% of respondents said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the statement: “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free.”

In a shopping or retail context people are willing to share more for better service, deals and offers, information about products and so on. Facilitating some of this is a burgeoning enabler of indoor location: Bluetooth beacons.

Because of their low-cost and relative simplicity beacons are being deployed in many retail and franchise businesses now. In addition to obvious indoor marketing and retail customer service use cases, there are many breacon uses that are non-commercial. It’s a very interesting technology that will become increasingly pervasive. But that’s not something to fear.
How Beacons Work

Nonetheless, much of the coverage of beacons is set against the backdrop of domestic surveillance sparked by the NSA revelations earlier this year — or has “surveillance” or “spying” as a subtext.

Privacy advocates and journalists are right to be concerned and vigilant about privacy. But sometimes the press get it wrong. One such example is a recent, inflammatory Buzzfeed story about “hidden” tracking devices (beacons) in some of New York City’s phone booths got the technical and privacy details almost 100% wrong.

That story and some other misinformed coverage prompted the LSA and Future of Privacy Forum to collaborate on a document for media and other interested parties offering a simple explanation of what beacons are, how they operate and why they’re not a privacy threat.

That document is called  Understanding Beacons: A Guide to Bluetooth Technologies.” It’s six pages, simply written, straightforward — and free. It will help you understand how beacons work and what they can and cannot do very quickly.

It’s intended for media and policy makers but anyone not already familiar with this important indoor location technology will benefit from reading it. And the upcoming April, 2015 LSA conference in Los Angeles, we have a session dedicated to beacons and their various uses:

Last mile to the last aisle: the future is beaconing – Case studies will show how beacons are currently being used for marketing, customer care and offline attribution. The session will also explore how beacons can be used in a local-merchant/SMB context.

Take a look at the Understanding Beacons document and let me know if there are questions or comments.

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