Privacy concerns by consumers are a natural response to the knowledge that ‘beacons’ planted in your local retailer can make your shopping experience more personal and useful. Because if the beacons aren’t spying on you, how else are they figuring out what kind of content to deliver to your phone?
Bluetooth LE Doesn’t Track
The reality is quite different. Beacons are the same thing as old fashioned radio towers – they might broadcast a signal, but just because your radio can hear it doesn’t mean you’re being tracked.
In fact, one of the benefits of Bluetooth LE and iBeacon technology is that it leaves the power in the literal hands of the user: the user needs to download an app, accept location tracking, turn Bluetooth on, and leave the app open. The power to ‘connect’ to a beacon is entirely in the hands of the consumer.
But beacon makers, retailers and app developers need to realize that beacons will all be painted with the same brush. As soon as consumers discover retailers are using the app and a user’s phone to triangulate, heat map, or otherwise track a consumer’s movement through their store it will be beacons that get the blame.
Sure, the beacon helps the phone to detect where it is. But it’s the app that has the capacity to track and send back data to your local store owner.
Four Layers of Data Collection
It’s probably unreasonable to expect app developers to follow standard guidelines for privacy. Each country has its own legislation and each retailer has its own use cases and policies about consumer tracking.
But I can’t help thinking whether it would be useful to separate out the four key functions of Bluetooth LE:
Enabled primarily by GPS on your phone and then by ‘beacon region’ once a beacon is found, this helps to generally locate consumers as being near a store or location.
Enabled by proximity to a beacon, this helps to locate a consumer next to, say, the chip aisle or shampoo display. This is what the beacon allows – but on its own, it doesn’t DO anything.
It’s when you deliver content to the consumer that they start to see the results. It can be a welcome message, coupon, video or reward point. The first two instances were natural data collection points – but it’s only when the customer starts to see some content that it moves from being surveillance into being a service.
This is where you connect to back-end databases like credit card information, loyalty cards, reward points or other systems.
Transparency Creates Assurance and Customer Trust
As a standard way of ‘dividing’ the layers of possible data collection, this approach puts the onus on the retailer to be clear about what data is being collected and creates a transparency as to when a retailer is collecting information but providing no visible value to the consumer. If you collect information on location, for example, there’s no inherent value to that data for the consumer. It’s only when they start to receive custom content that they see the value.
Would this approach help consumers to understand what beacons do? Would a standard approach help consumers realize they’re not being ‘tracked’? (And when they are – that they might not be getting any value in any case?)
What do you think? What approach would you use to maintain the long-term value of beacons while addressing user concerns?
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