Bluetooth Smart, Wi-Fi raise the hackles of privacy advocates

Many visitors to New York during Super Bowl week likely got their first taste of location-based advertising thanks to wireless proximity beacons deployed by the National Football League in Times Square and MetLife Stadium. And while consumers could only receive pop-up messages via those beacons if they opted in to use the N.F.L. Mobile app, privacy advocates are cautioning that beacons and even Wi-Fi hotspots can be used for nefarious purposes.

The NFL used the beacons to inform passersby of special offers and points of interest, such as the location in midtown Manhattan where they could get their photo taken with the Lombardi Trophy.

"The power of this is it really is able to connect the real world, the brick-and-mortar world, with the virtual world with a level of granularity that hasn't existed before," Manish Jha, the N.F.L.'s general manager of mobile, told The New York Times.

Beacon technology is being developed by numerous companies, including Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and startup Estimote, and generally employs low-energy Bluetooth Smart technology.

The various companies developing and installing beacon technology have touted its use in delivering shopping discounts and navigational tips. Retailers are interested in beacons because they can track in-store customers, enable in-store analytics, help deliver personalized content to shoppers, provide indoor navigation and even support contactless payments.

Vendors and retailers have generally sought to assure the public that consumers' privacy will be respected. Jha, for example, said the NFL is not connecting personal and location data with its Super Bowl beacons experiment.

However, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told The New York Times that information gathered by beacons could be used in unforeseen ways, such as mapping relationships between individuals who repeatedly visit a particular location. "Users will have no idea what information is collected or how it will be used," he cautioned.

Indeed, the ability of marketers as well as governments to track people via their wireless devices was highlighted last week by a CBC News report, which indicated that Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC)--the nation's electronic spy agency--used information gathered through a free Wi-Fi service at a major Canadian airport to track travelers' wireless devices for days after they passed through the terminal.

CBC said the program was revealed via a top secret document retrieved by U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden. The clandestine operation, conducted over a two-week period in 2012, likely gathered metadata not just from devices whose owners intentionally connected to the airport's free Internet service but also from smartphones, laptops and tablets belonging to other travelers who passed through the terminal with their devices' Wi-Fi function activated.

Canada's federal intelligence agency could subsequently track those travelers for a week or longer as their wireless devices showed up in other Wi-Fi hot spots across Canada and the United States. The CSEC could even pull data enabling it to track travelers' whereabouts prior to their arrival at the airport, according to the document.

Cyber-security expert Ronald Deibert told CBC that Wi-Fi enabled mobile devices are akin to "digital dog tags," which can reveal "extraordinarily precise information about our movements and social relationships."

CBC cited experts who said the 2012 tracking trial has since resulted in a fully operational information-gathering system used by the CSEC.

For more:
- see this NY Times article (sub. req.)
- see this CBC article and redacted CSEC Powerpoint
- see this GigaOM article

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