Are Bluetooth Beacons Tracking You?

Category: Privacy

The world is about to be flooded with hidden Bluetooth “beacons” that communicate wirelessly with phones and tablets carried by passersby. The beacons will provide you with helpful information and tempting offers. They will also provide their owner with valuable demographic data about you and your travels. Here's what you need to know...

What Are Bluetooth Beacons?

The technology is known as iBeacon, and it utilizes the Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) short-range, wireless communication standard. BLE is supported natively by iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Windows 8, and Linux. Here is how iBeacon applications work.

The “beacon” is a small device that regularly sends out a brief radio signal that includes its “universally unique identifier.” Nearby devices equipped with BLE support and appropriate apps receive the signal; look up the beacon’s identifier; and take some action such as displaying a message to the user, for example:

"For 10% off your next Starbucks drink, take a left at the corner!"
Bluetooth Beacons

"You are standing at the Neanderthal Man diorama; touch this icon to hear all about it."

"Your flight departs from Gate B26 in 30 minutes; proceed 500 yards straight ahead, then turn right through the portal marked, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter.’"

The beacon device itself does not collect any data from your device. But the app on your device looks up a beacon’s identifier by connecting to a remote database server. The app may transmit data about your device, location, and – potentially - personal data stored on the device during the same connection.

So whoever controls that database of beacon identifiers is the one who poses a threat to your privacy and security. If Starbucks deploys beacons in all its stores, it will have the database of all the identifiers of those beacons and can track everyone who uses the Starbucks app. The same goes for other retailers, airlines, museums, sports arenas, and so on.

But it gets better – or worse, depending on your viewpoint. Starbucks has only the data collected by the beacons it owns. The company from which Starbucks purchases beacons gets access to Starbucks’ data and the data collected by all of that beacon manufacturer’s customers: airlines, arenas, museums, retailers, music festivals, etc.

Who is Behind These Beacons?

The biggest seller of beacons is Gimbal, which is part of the retail systems division of mobile tech giant Qualcomm. The company’s privacy policy is probably worth a look if you ever install a Gimbal-based app.

The Gimbal privacy policy says that the company does not collect users’ names, email addresses, contacts, or log files of calls or text messages. It also says the privacy policy applies only to Gimbal, not the developers of apps that use Gimbal beacon technology.

Gimbal is “off by default.” That means the user must take some action to enable the collection and transmission of data the first time a Gimbal App is used. Gimbal’s software then generates a unique ID for that user, which subsequent Gimball Apps will also use. That user ID can be reset by the user, ending the chain of data about him but starting a new one with a new ID. Gimbal can be turned off on an app-by-app basis or across the entire device.

Gimbal Apps have been used at events such as the Tribeca Music Festival; venues such as ballparks and concert auditoriums; and local attractions such as museums. But now it seems poised to break out into the world at large.

In October, 2014, Gimbal beacons were discovered in 500 New York City public phone booths. Titan Advertising, the company that controls advertising on the screens of NYC’s public phones, pulled the beacons after public outcry.

Los Angeles has installed – but not yet activated – Gimbal beacons in several hundred bus stop benches and parking-restriction signs; the city has over 6,000 bus benches that could get beacons if the pilot program goes well. No one knows how many parking signs exist.

American Airlines installed beacons in its terminals at LAX, enabling frequent-flyers who have the AA app installed to receive directions to their gates. The Los Angeles Museum of Art has beacons and an app that tells visitors about the art they’re looking at.

And one has to wonder if government surveillance will expand through the use of iBeacons. We've already got cameras everywhere -- why not put these little gadgets on every street corner under the guise of homeland security?

Hold the Beacon, Please...

You can avoid any potential privacy problems by turning off (or not turning on) the Bluetooth feature on your smartphone. If you don't need Bluetooth connectivity for a headset, fitness band, hands-free calling in your car, or smartwatch, leave it turned off. (If you have an iPhone or iPad, you might notice that Bluetooth gets turned on automatically every time you install an iOS update. Hmmm...)

On both iOS and Android devices, you'll see the little Bluetooth icon in the top row of of your display, when the feature is turned on. On iPhone or iPad, Tap Settings, then General. Tap Bluetooth, then use the toggle to turn Bluetooth off. On Android devices, swipe down from the top, then tap the Bluetooth icon to switch it on or off.

If you do need Bluetooth connectivity, think twice before installing any Gimbal-based apps. Unfortunately, the people who push apps at consumers don’t label them “Gimbal-based.” So my best advice is to read the fine print carefully before and after you install an app, and uninstall any apps that you no longer need.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Are Bluetooth Beacons Tracking You?"

Posted by:

09 Apr 2015

I use an app called Shopkick that gives you points known as "kicks" that you can rack up and turn in for gift cards. Some of these 'kicks' are earned for just walking into a store. It says to make sure Bluetooth is turned on when you open the app at the stores entrance. I always wondered what Bluetooth had to do with it as I never saw any connection and when I searched for Bluetooth devices nothing came up. Now I know. Thanks!

Posted by:

09 Apr 2015

I guess that's why I get message re: various grocery stores and CVS just by entering. I don't ever have Bluetooth on.

Posted by:

Jake Williams
09 Apr 2015

Thanks for this info. I have always been leery of keeping Bluetooth active on my phone and now I have an explaination that makes good sense.

Posted by:

Steve Berkwits
09 Apr 2015

Gee, I'd never heard of this until reading your eye-opening article. Thank you! My friends should also know about this, and your advice on how to control their access to your smartphone. I followed your link to Gimbal, and as you'd pointed out, it seems innocuous enough; but I don't trust it now, either - particularly how some of their customers might use it.

Our world just keeps getting uglier.

Posted by:

diane mavroudis
09 Apr 2015

Wouldn't that feature be handy if lost or kidnapped, or on a child's phone

Posted by:

09 Apr 2015

Thanks very much for this article. No Bluetooth for me.

Posted by:

10 Apr 2015

With all these tracking devices these days I seriously question how " Free" the Internet really is anymore?

I always thought the Internet was a place one could go and browse with no problems-- now it seems you get pop up ads at times wit suggestions to go buy this product thT you have searched for on some earlier time

With so much emphasis on tracking one's searching I wonder if 1984 is more of a reality than we would care to admit

Posted by:

Art Frailey
10 Apr 2015

WOOOOOO ! I don't like this at all. I wear a Bluetooth device around my neck that helps me to talk on my phone and listen via my hearing aids. I have no way to turn this off and be able to use my phone. I think this is pushing into to much of my personal privacy, and I can do little about it.
May this device go to the wayside and be trashed. We do not need it.
Thanks for the info,Bob, great article.

Posted by:

10 Apr 2015

Is there a list of Gimbal apps anywhere?

Also, it may not be a popular opinion, but it's worth saying that most of the "Terms & Services" that we so quickly click "Agree" to upon installing these apps usually disclose this usage.. but how many of us read those thoroughly?

Posted by:

Stephen Lynn
10 Apr 2015


Posted by:

10 Apr 2015

I think that a vendor who produces a product that can be set to accept signals ONLY from and send them ONLY to devices with which it has been explicitly paired will make a mint.

Posted by:

12 Apr 2015

There are still 500 telephone booths in NYC?

Posted by:

cheryl Lynn
12 Apr 2015

Wow. Just finished watching the latest CSI:Cyber, and although Gizmodo had a harsh review of the show, after reading your article, I wonder if what happened in the show (a bomb set to go off after it connected to a specific number of cellphones) I wonder. I believe that this type of program is way too intrusive.

Posted by:

19 Jun 2015

Perhaps "Location Services" is source for those people who are receiving messages even when their Bluetooth is off. So not liking being tracked, one could turn off both services, unless I am wrong.

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