Creative Commons image by Luiz Filipe Carneiro Machado via Flickr

Apple’s iBeacon is a Double Edged Sword

on Tuesday, Apr. 15th

A post at All Tech Considered by Martin Kaste has me thinking today about iBeacon, the Apple iOS feature that uses low power Bluetooth signals to give an iPhone a more acute awareness of location.

Say, for instance, that you are at one of the Major League Baseball ballparks that have iBeacon servers installed. When you are near a beer kiosk your phone could become aware of what the prices are, or if there are two-for-one specials. (Like that’s every going to happen with ballpark beer.) Of course, the ballpark will also be aware of where you are, and that has privacy watchdogs edgy.

“As a privacy researcher, I always get nervous when marketers are celebratory about something,” says Garrett Cobarr, a technologist and writer based in Seattle. He says Apple seems to ignore certain assumptions that people make about what’s happening on a device.

Until recently a user would have to have the appropriate app running in order for the location awareness to work. Apple adjusted that recently, so that information can still be beamed to phones when an app is closed.

Cobarr is wary of this function.

“Most users if you asked them would assume that if the app wasn’t on, it wasn’t being used,” Cobarr says. He says finding out a closed app can still track the phone’s location “would surprise most people and perhaps unnerve them.”

What we have here is a “baby with the bathwater” problem.

The issue isn’t so much that phones are aware of the environment around them, it’s that the servers on the other side are aware of the phones. The infrastructure that has been set up is a two-way street, providing marketers with interaction data of the kind that has until now been limited to virtual environments.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

There is a way to set up the local data layer so that the iBeacons are broadcasting their information and phones are acting as passive receivers. Nothing is preventing the system from being devised this way. The issue lies with cash incentives–user data is valuable–and a lack of robust regulation on what marketers can and cannot do with that data.

The going consensus appears to be that we should all just shut off the parts of our phones that allow for this kind of tracking. That would be a hideous waste of an opportunity. As citizens and consumers we shouldn’t have to sacrifice privacy for convenience, and we shouldn’t have to forgo a technological marvel just because certain companies can’t keep their noses out of our personal lives.

Apple here has an opportunity to build a system that takes the best parts of the online experience–easily accessed information–and makes it better by ensuring user privacy at every step of the way. The MLB doesn’t need to know that I’ve bought four hot dogs, two beers and a ball cap in the last twenty minutes, but I sure as heck could use directions to the nearest bathroom ASAP.

Creative Commons image by Luiz Filipe Carneiro Machado via Flickr

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