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3 privacy violations you shouldn't worry about

Mike Elgan | April 22, 2014
In the past few years, the public has been confronted with hitherto unimaginable levels of personal privacy invasions.

The unexamined myth about iBeacon is that it senses the presence of your smartphone, from which it learns your identity, then records or transmits this information to who knows where.

But that's not how iBeacon, or any beacon technology, works. The systems work with low-cost, low-power beacons that are placed at specific locations and use Bluetooth LE to broadcast identifiers over short distances.

Here's why it's not the privacy invasion people think it is: Beacons can't receive data; they can only send data.

If the user has voluntarily downloaded and installed an iBeacon-supporting app (on either iOS or Android, by the way), and has granted permission for the app to interact with beacons, then the phone will receive the beacon data and the app can do things with that information.

As an oversimplified example, a beacon at Macy's department store might sit there and transmit data that essentially says: "Hi, this is Macy's beacon No. 13." If the Macy's app receives that information, it will learn both the beacon's location and the distance between the phone and the beacon. The creators of that app know where Macy's beacon No. 13 is in the store. And the app could, of course, relay this location information to a remote server.

It's an important distinction to understand that the smartphone is perceiving the beacon, not the other way around. It's the smartphone connecting with the outside world, not the beacon tracking the user's phone. It's the user who controls this activity, not the beacon or the store that installed the beacon.

A real privacy violation is a situation where you're not in control. But with iBeacon systems, you are in control of your own participation with the application.

Besides, the knowledge that you're in the shoe department at Macy's isn't significantly more of a privacy violation than the knowledge that you're at Macy's generally — information that is already being collected by, at a minimum, your wireless carrier.

2. Gmail scanning

Google this week updated its terms of service to clarify the longstanding practice of scanning Gmail messages in order to provide customized advertising. The new document is Google's attempt to satisfy critics — and Judge Lucy H. Koh, who told Google that its terms of service and privacy policies weren't explicit enough.

The idea that specific messages in Gmail may be accompanied by ads that reflect the content of those messages can freak people out.

Say you're planning a camping trip with a friend via email, and right next to your message is an ad for tents and sleeping bags. You might say, "Google is reading my email!"

Microsoft capitalized on this hysteria in its "Scroogled" marketing campaign. "Don't Get Scroogled by Gmail," Microsoft declared, boasting that its Outlook email doesn't scan messages for the purpose of delivering custom ads. (The company may have canceled the "Scroogled" campaign this week.)

 

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