New York City Phone Booths Add Beacons, Stoke Controversy

The web site Buzzfeed has a scoop today about a stealthy deployment of beacon technology in Manhattan that has some privacy experts concerned.

Gimbal beacons were deployed by the media firm Titan in New York City phone booths, stoking concern about privacy violations. (Image courtesy of Qualcomm.)

According to the exclusive report, by Buzzfeed’s Joseph Bernstein and Jeremy Singer-Vine, Titan a media company that sells ad space in more than 5,000 phone kiosk panels in New York City’s five boroughs, has installed about 500 beacons on its ad panels. The company went forward with the deployment with the blessing of New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), but without any public input, Buzzfeed reported.

Beacons are wireless devices that interact with mobile phones and other portable electronics. They’re used to provide location-specific data and interactions, such as advertisements linked to nearby businesses or to track the movements of an individual within a defined space (such as a show floor).

In the case of the phone booth beacons, Titan and Sbordone, the company that provides the display boards, say the beacons are being used for maintenance purposes on the boards, not to display ads or track individuals’ movements within New York City. The beacons are manufactured by the firm Gimbal, which used to be owned by Qualcomm. In theory, a mobile phone’s owner would need to explicitly approve the ability of a beacon to collect their personal information and receive push notifications (like ads) from an installed beacon.

The controversy, however, is real enough, with Buzzfeed quoting Donna Lieberman, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union calling the lack of transparency in the deployment “a great concern.”

Neither Titan nor New York’s DoITT would disclose the specific locations of the beaconized phone booths. A Buzzfeed audit found 13 of them deployed in one 20-block stretch along Broadway and Sixth Avenue, however.

Beacon technologies, including Apple’s iBeacon, are an increasing concern for civil liberties advocates. In a March report, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned about the growth of what it called “commercial stalking” enabled by beacons deployed in public places. 

Realtime data collected by smart devices and remote sensors, like beacons could enable a kind of digital “red lining,” in which different individuals receive different business offers based on their profile. It could also enable a kind of ‘Big Brother’ – whether commercially or politically driven – in which “it will be possible to pick you out of a crowd and identify you in complex ways in real time,” the ACLU warned.

Read more via EXCLUSIVE: Hundreds Of Devices Hidden Inside New York City Phone Booths.

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