Are You Being Tracked by Bluetooth Beacons While Shopping?

It appears that some companies are using Bluetooth Beacons to track you and influence your choices as you shop.
Christopher McFadden

The New York Times recently published an opinion piece detailing how some companies are using Bluetooth tech to harvest data on their consumers.

By knowing their location, and historical shopping habits, they can make use of calls-to-action and personalized adverts to trigger impulse buying.

Using a technique called Bluetooth Beacons, it appears that our fears about our own smartphones being used to track us might actually be true. 

What are Bluetooth Beacons?

Some recent reports have highlighted that companies are able to gather data on consumers using cell towers, ambient Wi-Fi, and GPS. But they also appear to use a far more precise and unobtrusive tool called Bluetooth Beacons

These are tiny, unobtrusive electronic devices that can be hidden in discrete places around a shop or grocery store. The beacons are able to communicate with certain apps on your phone to inform the company in question some very useful information.

This includes things like the fact where you are in the shop, within 5 meters or so. It can also record information regarding your shopping habits, such as, in which aisles you tend to linger the longest. 

Unlike other location services, like GPS, Bluetooth Beacons are very accurate and can track you anywhere between a few centimeters to 50 meters away. They also use very little energy and work incredibly well indoors. 

For this reason, they have become very popular among companies that desire data on consumer tracking, within their stores. 

Most of us are completely oblivious

The vast majority of consumers are completely unaware of this kind of practice. These so-called “Beacosystems” tracks millions of us every day.

They are also commonly used in many other places, other than stores. For example, Bluetooth Beacons are commonplace in airportsmallssubwaysbusestaxissporting arenasgymshotelshospitalsmusic festivalscinemas and museums, and even on billboards.

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But for them to work it does require some input from consumers. The beacons cannot work without the presence of a compatible app on your smart device. 

"Retailers (like Target and Walmart) that use Bluetooth beacons typically build tracking into their own apps. But retailers want to make sure most of their customers can be tracked — not just the ones that download their own particular app," notes Michael Kwet who wrote the opinion piece in the New York Times.

But, of course, not everyone uses a company's own apps. That's where an entire third-party industry has sprouted up to install Bluetooth location-marketing functions into other common apps like weather updates and news apps.

Many companies in this industry take their beacon tracking code and bundle it into a toolkit that developers can use. App makers then take these toolkits and combine them with their apps.

bluetooth beacons example
Source: Jona Nalder/Flickr

In some cases, they can even be paid by beacon companies (or receive other benefits) for doing so.

But some of the tech giants, like Facebook (Facebook Bluetooth beacons) and Google (Project Beacon), are also in on the act.

Some leaked reports, and other investigations, have shown that it is common for them to provide free beacons to companies in exchange for harvesting data on consumers and users. 

Apple and Google appear to have also freely allowed companies to bury surveillance features inside apps offered on their apps stores. 

Can you prevent companies from collecting location data on you?

You certainly can. One simple way is to shut off location services and Bluetooth when they are not needed. 

You can also consider deleting apps that gather this kind of information from your phone. 

There are also some great guides out there for helping you stop apps from tracking your location. 

Android users might want to consider using the F-Droid app store. This hosts free and open- source apps that do not spy on users with hidden trackers.

"Most of our concerns about privacy are tied to the online world and can feel theoretical at times. But there is nothing theoretical about Bluetooth beacon technology that follows you into retail stores (and other venues) and tracks your movement down to the meter," concluded Michael Kwet in his NYT article.