Beacons make brands powerful.
But the power comes at a price: because unlike passive detection technologies, beacons emit a signal.
And that signal is both a godsend for brands and the source of their greatest terror: that a consumer will delete their app, that they’ll cross the line from contextual to creepy.
Beacons can make both brands and consumers more powerful. And this tension is one of the main reasons they’ve become such a massive source of innovation.
Brave New World?
It’s a brave, amazing, scary and sometimes creepy new world.
It’s a world where your car is connected to the ‘cloud’, your wristband knows your heart rate, your home knows that you’re back from the office and your thermostat knows how warm you like to keep things and how bright you like your lights.
In this brave new world, Buzzfeed has gone to town and highlighted concerns about beacons being placed on billboards and phone booths:
Gimbal’s apparent strategy — getting hundreds of its beacons placed in high-trafficked public spaces — contrasts markedly with the indoor, retail-focused applications that have dominated beacon-based marketing so far, such as telling a customer in aisle 12 that polo shirts are on sale.
While municipalities have trumpeted the potential civic uses of a beacon network (to help city agencies send alerts and other messages to smartphones, for example), their implementation has far-ranging commercial implications. And while the outdoor ad firms have so far played down those implications publicly, they’ve already pitched brands on the consumer potential of beacons.
The deployment of massive outdoor networks seems to come at a price: consumer privacy. Buzzfeed reports that:
…a large beacon network seems to be essential to the services the company has marketed to its clients. Gimbal’s “Profile” service, for example, “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about a user’s demographics (“age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”), interests (“sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”), and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time (home, work, gym, beach, etc.).” According to Gimbal, the Profile service only operates for users who explicitly “opt in” to it.
The truth, however, is that if you’re concerned about brands and retailers having a ton of data about you – about where you shop, where you check-in, where you hang out with your friends – then you have some catching up to do.
Beacons barely make a dent in building up the kinds of profiles Gimbal offers. It’s not the beacon that’s the source of all that data – it’s the ability to connect beacon data with your Facebook profile, say, your Foursquare data, or your Tweets that should have you worried.
There are, in other words, way way easier ways to conduct surveillance on your interests, shopping habits and where and what you spend.
And none of those other methods make it so easy to “opt out” or are as consumer-focused as Gimbal is by requiring you to opt-in.
Gimbal might not be a beacon (so to speak) of consumer privacy and protection, but their impulse to collect data is mitigated by one very very simple thing: beacons aren’t silent.
Beacons broadcast. It’s this broadcast (a radio broadcast which does nothing more than emit a bunch of ID numbers and other data) which has retailers and brands deeply aware that consumers can and will notice (just as Buzzfeed was able to notice beacons, because they could…you know, monitor for them).
Beacons, in other words, especially in comparison to passive detection technologies, are a consumer’s best friend.
Clean Well-Lit Spaces
Now, Buzzfeed is right to be concerned. But not about beacons so much as about the role of any connected devices in the public space.
When I walk down the street I’m in the public commons.
Should the commons be free of digital commercials and tracking? Should I expect that a public park, for example, be free of cameras and beacons and passive WiFi monitoring? What about a public square – should I expect that advertising be clearly marked? Should I expect that technical infrastructure be aligned to the public good, and how do we define the public good?
If Facebook uses GPS to track where I’ve been, does the fact that they did so while I was in a public square matter? Or is the venue irrelevant because I’ve formed an implicit (or explicit, if you count a TOS as a legible instrument) contract with their app?
It’s OK to have advertising on subways or buses, but what if the advertising is mostly invisible to us? What if devices detect our actions and then push messages to us when we get to the mall based on where we’ve travelled?
Do we have a right to know that data collected about us in the public square can be used in private, commercial businesses like malls and retailers?
The use of connected devices in public spaces may be one of the great debates of our time. (Or might not be debated at all…and a Buzzfeed article or two will be the only record of having tried).
How we know about and react to connected devices in the public commons reminds me of what Eben Moglen, director of the Software Freedom Law Center once called the need for “clean, well-lit spaces”:
It has got to tell you what the rules are of the space where you are it has to give you an opportunity to make an informed consent about what is going to happen given those rules. It has got to give you an opportunity to know those things in an automatic sort of way so I can set up my (profile) to say, you know what, I don’t go to places where I am on video camera all the time. Self, if you are about to walk into a room where there are video cameras on all the time just don’t walk through that door. So I don’t have to sign up and click yes on 27 agreements, I have got (a profile) that doesn’t go into places that aren’t clean and well lit.
Against this backdrop beacons play a critical role. Because they broadcast. And by broadcasting they announce to a consumer “I’m here, now do with me what you will”.
The Right to Say No Doesn’t Just Impact Consumers
Beacons don’t solve these larger issues of technology in the public square, but at least they’re not completely passive and invisible.
Buzzfeed can still run around detecting beacons, consumers can still “opt in”, and you can still turn your Bluetooth off. The same can’t be said for passive WiFi monitoring, facial recognition or other invisible (and often signal-free) technologies.
By leaving power in the consumer’s hands, Gimbal can have millions of beacons in the world, but brands will still be careful about what they do with them.
In today’s world, there are very very few brands who want to be creepy. Not necessarily because they’re well-intentioned, but because they fear that you’ll do something as simple as deleting their app.
Your right, as a consumer, to say no, to turn Bluetooth off…has a very clear and direct impact on how brands and retailers thing about how beacons are used.
It’s the same impulse which has Apple continually tweaking how iBeacon works – turning on the ability for apps to detect beacons when off, for example, while giving consumers more choice in how location tracking is used.
The Winner is Innovation
We’ve met with dozens of brands. We’ve met with retailers who are using passive WiFi detection (using the signal from your phone to track where you go in their store), hidden cameras which detect your age and gender, and who crunch massive amounts of data about what websites you visit, what apps you use, and what neighbourhoods you visit.
But when it comes to iBeacon and BLE devices we almost always end up in the same place, where brands say this: “That we’d better get this right. We’d better not be creepy. And we’d better figure out a way to make this useful to the customer”.
Fear of their apps being deleted leads to innovation. And beacons give them a massive creative canvas on which to work.
The world ahead might be creepy. Connected devices might end up meaning not much more than “more data in more places”. But so far, beacons trend towards something else: a more contextual, user-focused world.
As Molly Wood reported in the New York Times:
Data collection and aggressive advertising will almost certainly be part of the early days of the beacon rollout. But hopefully the phase will pass quickly, because beacons have a lot of potential to deliver rich digital context on top of the real world.
To realize that future, users will have to know which apps to trust and reject the apps and the companies that take advantage of our phones’ home screens. The ultimate future of beacon technology is really up to us.
Share Your Thoughts
Thoughts? Are connected devices a threat to privacy? What’s their place in the public square? And what role do beacons play in an age of consumer “big data”?