every step you take
New York City's phone booths are packed with hundreds of hidden devices — and they have the capability to track New Yorkers' movements.
BuzzFeed reports that the devices, called beacons, use Bluetooth technology to send signals to smartphone users who cross their paths, provided they have opted in to receive such alerts. While the beacons are commonly used in places like stores and stadiums, BuzzFeed discovered that hundreds of New York phone booths are home to beacons, which could be used to track peoples' movements.
A spokesperson for Titan, an outdoor media company that sells ads in phone kiosks across New York City, told BuzzFeed that the company has installed roughly 500 beacons in New York's pay phone booths. The beacons are manufactured and sold by San Diego-based company Gimbal.
BuzzFeed reports that the current iteration of Gimbal technology uses a third-party app to trigger advertisements based on a user's location, though users must "opt-in" to send data and receive notifications. This means that for the phone booth ads, the beacons "would need to recognize a corresponding app to push beacon-linked content to that phone."
While beacon technology may seem harmless enough at first, BuzzFeed notes that widespread use of beacons "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." While Gimbal stressed that the beacons don't collect smartphone users' personally identifiable information, privacy advocates are warning New Yorkers that "the deal could turn the Big Apple into a giant data-mining matrix."
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told BuzzFeed that "the lack of transparency" the city has given the public is troublesome, though Titan told BuzzFeed that the beacons are "currently in use on a test basis only."
If you want to avoid phone booths with beacons, BuzzFeed discovered an Android app, iBeacon, that lets you know where the beacons are located.
Update: The Associated Press reports that New York has canceled the program amid privacy concerns. After BuzzFeed reported the news, the city asked Titan to remove the beacons from New York's pay phone booths.