Scare stories about ad beacons don’t help us talk about the risks of digital surveillance

It seems like a classic journalistic success story: BuzzFeed reports that hundreds of secret tracking devices have been installed in New York City phone booths, and are monitoring users’ location without their knowledge. Soon afterwards, the city orders that the beacons be removed. We should be cheering, right? Except that the BuzzFeed story pumped up the alleged danger and downplayed the reality, and arguably indulged in the worst kind of clickbait: technological fear-mongering.

Should we be concerned about surreptitious tracking of our location and behavior? Sure we should. The revelations about NSA snooping that have come from Edward Snowden and others over the past year or so make that abundantly clear — not to mention concerns about the privacy risks of social networks that sell our data for ad dollars. But stoking fears unnecessarily doesn’t really help that cause.

Playing on fears about surveillance

The BuzzFeed piece certainly paints a scary picture: tiny transmitters made by a shadowy company whose CEO used to be part of a sub-prime auto-lending scheme, installed in secret, monitoring your location and sending that data to who knows where. Only far down in the piece — in a tiny paragraph — does it say that you have to have an app installed and give the beacon explicit permission before it can do anything. Most of the rest is stuff like this:

The spread of beacon technology to public spaces could turn any city into a giant matrix of hidden commercialization — and vastly deepen the network of surveillance that has already grown out of technologies ranging from security cameras to cell phone towers.

Not only that, but as Marketing Land points out in a post, the beacons used by Titan don’t actually track anything. They sense when a user with the app installed is nearby, so that they can send relevant advertising — discount coupons etc. — to that user, with their permission. It’s not that different from what Foursquare does when it senses a user’s location and tells them there’s a coffee shop they might like nearby. The beacons hadn’t even been officially activated yet.

BuzzFeed Beacons

Even Jules Polonetsky, a privacy expert and executive director of the Future of Privacy Forum — someone whose whole job consists of raising awareness about privacy issues — pointed out in a post about the beacon controversy that the beacons don’t actually track anything. They only respond to a user who has a specific app installed, and even then their ability to do anything with that person’s location or other information is limited. As he puts it:

Beacons themselves don’t collect any data. They do not send marketing messages to your phone. They broadcast location marks that your phone and apps using your phone can take advantage of to understand more precisely where you are.

Techno-paranoia meets reality

Kashmir Hill, who writes about privacy issues for Forbes, said much the same thing in a post, noting that “help retailers, venues and advertisers to better track you, but only if you have Bluetooth turned on and only if you download their apps.” The beacon maker could do a better job of telling users what information it gets, but that’s no reason to panic, she said.

As Marketing Land notes, the prospect of a network of “tracking devices” sounds scary — but your smartphone’s GPS and its proximity to WiFi hotspots and cell-network towers can already be tracked by police and the government, and your phone carrier knows your entire location history. Ad beacons pale by comparison.

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith told me that he stands by the beacon story, and said on Twitter that it was a great example of how effective the site’s investigative journalism can be. But good journalism of any kind should be fair. In other words, it should be careful to balance the fear of things like corporate or government surveillance — something that definitely “sells papers,” as they said in the old days — with the reality of the technology it is describing.

There are plenty of issues around surreptitious monitoring that need exploring, and companies that are undoubtedly up to no good with the data they are collecting. But fear-mongering about an advertising beacon that requires a specific app and explicit user permission is a long way from that, in my opinion.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr / Thomas Leuthard