Titan, a company that controls the ad space on 5,000 phone booths around New York City, quietly installed bluetooth beacons capable of automatically tracking and serving ads to nearby smartphones on hundreds of its Manhattan booths, BuzzFeed reported early this morning. Now, in the wake of BuzzFeed's report, City Hall has asked that the devices be removed.
The devices, manufactured by a company called Gimbal, were approved by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), but no notice was given to the public before their installation. From BuzzFeed:
New York City residents had no say in the deployment of Titan's beacons. Titan notified DoITT of its plans to install the beacons in 2013, which the city agreed to without a formal approval process because, according to [DoITT spokesman Nicholas] Sbordone, the company said it was using the devices for maintenance purposes only. Titan installed the beacons from September to November 2013; a source with knowledge of the situation alerted BuzzFeed News to the program anonymously for fear, the source said, of being fired for speaking publicly.
According to DoITT's spokesman, roughly 500 of the devices were installed, and BuzzFeed discovered several in "central and lower Manhattan" using a beacon-finding Android app. This morning, Phil Walzak, a spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said that the city has asked Titan to remove the beacons, and that they will be taken down "over the coming days."
They may be coming down from Manhattan's phone booths, but beacons are still used to serve location-specific ads elsewhere, and it's easy to imagine how they might have eventually been employed. Walking past Macy's? Here's information about a sale—come on in! The U.S. Tennis Association recently used the technology in New York at the U.S. Open, and BuzzFeed notes that Major League Baseball and Gamestop have used Gimbal beacons in stadiums and stores.
Before the removal announcement, Titan told BuzzFeed that the beacons were being used solely for "test purposes," and Walzak, the mayor's spokesman, emphasized in his statement that they are "incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information." It's true that Gimbal doesn't track things like names, phone numbers, and text messages, but it does openly collect and store location information, as well as data about your phone itself, and in some cases, app usage and browser history. For now, the company requires apps to obtain your approval before collecting and sending data, but if you're worried, the best way to hide from beacons is to turn off bluetooth.