New York City recently announced that it will be removing beacons that have the capability of tracking smartphone owners from payphone booths scattered around Manhattan. The 500 beacons were in the testing phase and were part of a larger proposal by outdoor media company Titan, which sells advertising space in phone kiosks. While the beacons are intended to send push notifications to nearby smartphones and are unable to collect any personal information, they could be used to track the location of smartphone users. Whether or not the beacons actually pose a threat, the city’s decision to remove them proves its commitment to finding a balance between personal privacy and public security.
Beacons seem to be the next big thing in both marketing and privacy concerns. Unfortunately, general understanding of what beacons do seems hazy at best. While the technology could easily develop in worrying ways, the beacons installed by Titan are hardly dystopian tracking devices. Gimbal, the company that created Titan’s beacons, may collect information on users’ locations, but so does Google. For a passerby’s phone to interact with Gimbal’s beacons, the user must download a smartphone app, giving their phone permission to interpret beacons’ signals. In addition, the function of beacons vary based on a phone’s operating system: iPhones automatically receive beacon signals, while Android users must manually activate apps that use beacons. There is always potential for misuse, however, and beacons could easily become the type of invasive technology that they are currently perceived to be. But, America has bigger digital demons to slay.
One of the fundamental concerns underlying the beacons is simply that the public was not informed of their presence. It was not until after Buzzfeed broke the story that City Hall decided to remove the devices. When the beacons were first installed, Titan told the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications that they were for “maintenance purposes only.” With this innocuous cover, Titan was able to duck obligations to inform the public about the nature of this maintenance. The lack of informed public consent surrounding the beacons only serves to further strain the balance between convenience and liberty. It echoes concerns about NSA and federal surveillance, which were conducted without publicly available information.
At a time when distrust in surveillance has never been higher and government respect for privacy has never been lower, it is reassuring to know that there are still lines that can be drawn. While New York City may be implementing invasive security measures, the decision to nix the beacons proves that citizens’ privacy concerns are still taken into consideration. Moving forward, however, the city should seek greater transparency when making security decisions. Overall, this decision comes as a positive first step toward moderating the city’s security programs.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Oct. 8 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]