Beware the bluetooth
Over the last few years, there’s been a quiet revolution in retail marketing empowering advertisers to track consumers in physical space. Retailers have realized that, contrary to popular misconceptions, most retail purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores– not the online world of Amazon and Walmart. The capacity to track each of us in the physical world offers an untapped market for high-tech advertising. Google previously called this the Physical Web, a new Internet of Things frontier that melds the online and offline worlds into one.
To facilitate online-offline tracking, Google and Apple developed protocols for communications with mobile devices like smartphones. The idea is to make the physical world, like a poster on a building, something you can “click on” (i.e. interact with) without installing a special app. The dominant weapon of choice is the bluetooth beacon – silly putty-sized units that broadcast bluetooth signals to track your precise location and send messages to your phone. Bluetooth beacons are now scattered about stores, airports, sporting arenas, malls, and other locales. The technology is several years in the making.
Google developed its Nearby APIs for incorporation into your phone. Google software scans the area around your device for bluetooth beacons (including iBeacons), which can then track you and broadcast messages to your phone. For example, if you walk by a bluetooth beacon, it might push a website URL to your phone that will display in your Nearby Notifications.
Bluetooth beacons function as a “light house” to broadcast signals to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Unlike GPS, which can misread your location by a matter of several meters, bluetooth can determine your location with fine precision. If you walk down an aisle and a beacon is nearby, the beacon owner (retailers, advertisers, or product vendors) can determine you’re in that particular aisle or department. Beacon signals can reach up 70 meters.
Added to this, individual apps often package in “tracker SDKs” that collect various forms of smartphone data and activity. A team of researchers found that over 7 in 10 apps incorporate hidden trackers (usually to monetize surveillance). Some of these trackers surveil your physical location using GPS, bluetooth, WiFi, or near-ultrasonic sound.
“Proximity marketing”, as it’s known in the industry, aims to transform physical shopping into a total surveillance experience, bringing us one step closer to a Minority Report world. Will this become the new normal?
The Big Data collected by proximity companies is merged into larger data sets and analyzed by corporations like Salesforce, whose “intelligent marketing hub” uses advanced statistics and AI to “stitch together” user identities across devices (laptop, smartphone, tablet), segment each of us into categories (like gender, age, and location), and drive us along personalized advertising campaigns.
Can we stop the emerging Internet of Stings, and with it, surveillance capitalism? To secure real privacy, it’s going to take a movement more committed than the battle for net neutrality. We need to take close look at the players linked to the advertising industry – and their vision for the future – to get a sense of what we’re up against.