New York City has ordered the quick removal of about 500 devices from payphone booths around Manhattan, following an Internet news media company’s claim that the devices could track people.
Outdoor media company Titan, which owns the ad space on payphone booths in the city, installed near the end of last year about 500 beacons, Bluetooth devices that interact with smartphones to send information.
Buzzfeed’s article early Monday, where it revealed Titan’s little-known installation, used phrases such as “Beacons can push you ads—and help track your every move,” that had New York officials moving quickly to pacify the public.
The Mayor’s Press Office released a statement in the afternoon: “While the beacons Titan installed in some of its phones for testing purposes are incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information, we have asked Titan to remove them from their phones.”
Over the coming days, the beacons will be removed from payphone booths.
In a statement, Titan’s chief strategy officer, Dave Etherington, said the testing was designed to determine how the beacons functioned in dense metropolitan areas.
Etherington noted that beacons have many possible uses, besides commercial, such as for public safety and communication.
In the far future, people might see beacons used for amber alerts or severe weather alerts.
Beacons are set up in various locations and work with smartphones. Currently, they’re used in sports stadiums, in the MTA, and retail stores.
The way beacons work, people download an app and give the app permission to use Bluetooth at a location. The app can then detect the beacon and display relevant information to that location, for example, the history of a certain museum painting when one is standing next to the painting.
Jules Polonetsky, executive director of a D.C. think tank, Future of Privacy Forum, clarified the function of a beacon.
“Let’s explain this rapidly spreading new technology we often see described inaccurately,” wrote Polonetsky in a LinkedIn article published Monday, “Beacons are not tracking your phone. In fact, your phone is tracking them.”
Spokesperson for the NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) Nicholas Sbordone explained: “When your phone comes into proximity with one of these beacons that’s sending out ‘I’m here, I’m here, I’m here,’ if your app has the permission, it’ll recognize the ping and you’ll get the message, ‘Hey, it’s 10 percent off lattes!'”
Specifically, Etherington stated, in words that echoed the Buzzfeed article, “Gimbal proximity beacons do not collect user data/information, they do not send or push content, nor do they track people.”
Gimbal, a San Diego company, manufactures and sells the beacons, which need phone apps to trigger the advertisements.
Sbordone said that he wouldn’t be concerned about being tracked.
“If I didn’t opt in [to an app], and I started getting stuff, I’d say ‘well, what’s going on here?’ said Sbordone.
“But if I did opt in, my first reaction might be ‘oh that worked, that’s kind of cool.’ I wouldn’t think someone was trying to track me, when I’ve said yes, please let me know what things apply to me that I might be near.”