Is Apple Tracking Shoppers? No: The Power is In Their Hands

Apple App via ABC News

With Apple’s launch of Bluetooth LE powered beacons in its US stores over the weekend we have a major national rollout that demonstrates the value of proximity-based shopping experiences.

There have been sputters with its rollout. Multiple welcome notifications and content that doesn’t actually ‘match’ the consumer’s location in the store can give the mistaken impression that there’s something wrong with the beacons themselves.

With a few simple tweaks Apple to the app, these problems will be easily fixed.

So let’s call it a major beta test that needs some course correction. (I’ll admit I was far less generous in my opinion yesterday – call it the pain of disappointment).

Is Apple Tracking You?

But there’s another storyline that took hold in a lot of the media coverage about Apple’s iBeacon launch: that with beacons, Apple is ‘tracking’ its shoppers.

For example, in an otherwise fair and balanced piece by the Associated Press that was picked up by the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, the headline screamed a different story from the article: Now Apple Stores will track your every move with iBeacon tech.

The article itself was a balanced description of what’s really happening:

“On Friday, Apple Inc. will begin using the technology at its 254 U.S. stores to send you messages about products, events and other information – tailored to where you are inside, provided you have downloaded the Apple Store app and have given Apple permission to track you.”

ABC news went for ‘fair and balanced’: Apple Can Track You in Its Stores, and That Might Not Be Bad

“Using its new GPS and Bluetooth-equipped iBeacon devices inside stores, the company will be able to tell whether you are in an Apple Store or not, and then specifically where you are in the store. The point isn’t so that Apple can watch you in the store; Apple said it is to serve you better information, including deals in the store.”

IT news approached it as a potentially creepy way to track consumers with a headline to match: Apple knows where shoppers are in its stores with nationwide iBeacon rollout

“Although some people might have come to accept it online, others might find the thought of being tracked in physical stores a bit creepy. Earlier this year Nordstrom had to suspend a Wi-Fi-based tracking program after consumers learned what the store was up to.”

Bluetooth LE is a Breakthrough Because It DOESN’T Track

But even IT News notes that beacons are nothing like Wi-Fi tracking:

“But Apple does not store any personal information through iBeacon, a spokesman said. The technology is designed to only work one way, from the hardware to the phone. The hardware component emits a signal and the phone recognizes it, but nothing is sent back to the hardware, the spokesman said.”

And this response points to why Bluetooth LE is so powerful: because it puts control over proximity in the hands of the consumer.

Most of you reading this blog will already know what Apple pointed out:

  • Beacons are transmitters. Bluetooth LE is a low energy specification for creating devices (beacons) that transmit data packets to the world around them
  • They’re not, in themselves, scanners. They don’t collect data on customers because they’re only transmitting. They’re truly nothing more than a radio signal – and if you think of an old fashioned radio tower it’s exactly the same thing. Just because your radio can “hear” the signal from a tower, it doesn’t mean the tower knows you’re listening or where you are.

In other words, beacons don’t have the capacity to ‘track’. Once you’ve given explicit permission, your PHONE can broadcast where you are and other information, but then you control the phone.

Permission and Control is in the Hands of the User

What makes this powerful, in my opinion, is that it leaves the control in the literal hands of the consumer. The only time any ‘data’ is transmitted is when your app detects a signal and wakes itself up. At that point, your app might go to download some information from the ‘cloud’, it might display a coupon, or it might give you a little map of the store.

The beacons themselves don’t track. They don’t monitor. They simply broadcast.

The consumer has the power to decide whether they want the store owner to “know” where they are because THEY control the ‘data transmission point’ (their phone, which contains an app).

The experience is opt-in and has at least four permission points:

  • The consumer needs to download an app
  • They need to give the app permission to determine location
  • The app needs to be open in the foreground or background
  • They need to turn Bluetooth on.

At any time, they can take away permission. They can turn Bluetooth off (either universally, or for the specific app that’s bothering them). They can ‘hard close’ the app. They can take away location permissions. Or they can delete the app.

It’s entirely in the hands of the consumer – and puts the onus on the retailer to make an experience that’s compelling enough that the consumer won’t take away permission.

Apple is giving you a tool that lets your phone track where you are in its stores.

In other words – you’re actually tracking yourself. By using your phone to find beacons in the world around you, you’ve allowed yourself to tap into proximity-based content. Whether the content is useful enough will determine whether you keep it on, delete the app, or go shopping next door.

The power, in other words, is all in your hands.

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