Beacon Scanners Are Helping Stores Track What You Do

You probably know that advertisers are tracking the things you do on your phone. But did you know they’re actually tracking where you are — and what you do — in physical space as well?

Bluetooth beacons have become a way for companies to track, log, and sell your location data to advertisers. The beacons are set up in inside stores (as well as a range of other public places) and they communicated directly with your phone’s Bluetooth connection. While GPS can give an approximate location within 16 feet, Bluetooth beacons can give your location down to the inch.

So how do they work?

Stores place Bluetooth beacons throughout their space. As you walk through the store, apps in your phone detect the beacons — even if the apps aren’t open. The apps then send information about your activities (including but not limited to your location, products you walked by, or products you spent time in front of) to the company’s server. That information can be combined with other info gathered from your phone use — like your income and exercise habits, for example — to build a clear profile of you.

“Even if you did know which companies have access to your beacon data, there’s no way to know what kind of data is collected through the app,” Michael Kwet writes in The New York Times. “It could be your micro-location, dwell time or foot traffic, but it can also include data from the app, such as your name, and your app data can be combined with other data sets compiled about you by data brokers. There is simply no transparency.”

Whatever information is collected, you can be sure it’s used to sell you targeted ads. Maybe a company wants to encourage you to go back and buy the cereal you left on the shelve last time, so they send you a coupon. Or perhaps they even believe that the average consumer would prefer to give up this much privacy and personal information in order to receive more targeted ads.

But there’s really no way to opt in or out of the system. Stores don’t advertise when they’re using beacons and apps that utilize them often bury that fact deep in their terms of service. So what can you do to protect yourself?

Delete unneeded apps

The first thing you can do is take an app assessment — and clean it up. Go through the apps on your phone and ask yourself if you really need each one. Pay particular attention to retailer apps, which are almost certainly tracking you. Also keep in mind that you can always re-download apps that you use sometimes but not frequently, like airline apps.

Turn off location and Bluetooth services

Turn off location and Bluetooth services on your phone unless you’re actively using them. So, for example, if you need to use Google Maps, you probably need to switch on your location! But just switch it off when you’re done.

Getting into the habit of disabling those two features will largely protect you from being tracked by Bluetooth beacons.

Download a beacon scanner

Establishments don’t have to inform people when they’re using Bluetooth beacons, but you can scan for them yourself. Download a beacon scanner so you’ll which places are using beacons, as well as the type of beacon they’re using.

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