The Stack Archive

Privacy concerns at the New York phone booths that want to know you better

Mon 6 Oct 2014

An outdoor media company has fitted hundreds of New York City phone booths with radio transmitters that can be used to track people’s movements, according to an exclusive report from Buzzfeed today.

City spokesman Nicholas Sbordone, representing NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), confirmed that the ‘Gimbal beacon’ Bluetooth devices in question can communicate with smartphones that are in range. Gimbal beacons are currently used in many retail experiences to interact with shoppers, sending personalised messages, indicating new deals that may interest the customer, and generally, well, imitating that scary scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is trying to remain anonymous in a ‘plugged in’ shopping environment.

Some of the benefits of the system as advertised on the Gimbal website is “Provide a better understanding of consumer traffic patterns” and delivering “a vast array of new triggers for analytics packages”.

The advertising company which installed the devices, Titan, specialises in ambient advertising solutions, and holds twelve offices across the U.S. in 46 North American markets including New York, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and San Francisco.

The company manages advertising in 5,000 phone booth panels in NYC, but the locations of the 500 Gimbal-equipped booths has not been revealed. Titan sought and was given approval for the installation of the devices by the New York Department of Information Technology, citing that their purpose was ‘maintenance’.

The Gimbal beacons are able to harvest and report location-specific data and interactions within a limited field, which until now would have been defined by a retail space or a zone within an exhibition; environments where the consumer would probably expect to be controlled and monitored to a certain extent.

In theory the user would need to acquiesce to the devices’ requests for information, but head of the New York Civil Liberties Union Donna Lieberman is quoted as being very concerned about the lack of transparency in the deployment.

The wave of the future seems to be contextual advertising – ads that market to you based not on where you are, but who you are, for instance never advertising luxury services to low-income consumers or gender-targeted products at the wrong gender.


news privacy security
Send us a correction about this article Send us a news tip