NYC Ends Ad Beacon Network Some Saw as Privacy Invasion

The transmitter beacons sent ads to nearby cell phones via Bluetooth, but could also be used to track people's movements, according to critics.

NYC ad beacons

New York City officials have ordered the removal of a controversial system of advertising beacons that were in the process of being installed in Manhattan phone booths after critics began lashing out at the system due to privacy concerns.

The system was being installed by an outdoor media company, Titan, which already sells advertising space in some 5,000 telephone kiosks throughout the city, according to an Oct. 6 story by the Associated Press. But critics bashed the project after reports began surfacing that small transmitter beacons were being installed to deliver or "push" ad messages to nearby smartphone users using Bluetooth signals, the story said.

Some 500 of the small transmitters, which are also called beacons, had already been installed throughout Manhattan when the project was scuttled, the story reported.

The problem, critics said, is that the resulting signals "could also be used to track the movements of the phones' owners, which would have added to the ever-increasing layers of surveillance installed in the nation's largest city since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks," the AP reported. "While the beacons Titan installed in some of its phones for testing purposes are incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information, we have asked Titan to remove them from their phones," Phil Walzak, a spokesman for Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, told the AP.

Titan has been involved with the city since 2012 in another project that was using telephone kiosks to deliver free WiFi around Manhattan, according to the city's Website. Titan said that the devices were not intended to track private citizens.

The beacons are now in the process of being removed.

Critics, including civil liberties groups, were angry about the project because of its privacy implications and because of what they claimed was a "lack of public discussion over the program," the AP reported.

The plans for the beacon network were approved back in 2013 "without public notice or consultation" by the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, according to an Oct. 7 story in The Christian Science Monitor. "The company said the beacons installed in Manhattan were going to be used for maintenance and 'inventory management' purposes only, but beacon technology is becoming more and more a part of retail advertising and consumer convenience programs. Stores and sports stadiums use them to send messages to nearby users."

For the messages to be transmitted, mobile device users must have Bluetooth enabled on their devices, as well as third-party apps for stores or other advertisers that can communicate with the beacons, the article reported.

In an Oct. 6 story in the New York Daily News, Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, harshly criticized the conduct of city officials who implemented the program without prior public announcements. "To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency about this data-mining operation is even more, of even greater, concern," Lieberman told the paper. "This is an agreement that has to be suspended pending an open process about what's going on."