Privacy, Beacons — And How Not to Win an Argument With Your Spouse

Privacy issues become even more contentious when Bluetooth beacons are deployed. Can Location resolve the argument between the public, the privacy advocates and the innovators using beacons to engage their customers?

For proximity solution providers deploying Bluetooth beacons, navigating privacy issues feels like being stuck in an argument with your spouse, one of those arguments that you know you can’t win. It’s a high stakes debate, with conflicting signals on what is the right thing to do.

A report published earlier this year by the Annenberg School for Communication found that 91 percent of people surveyed disagreed with the proposition that “If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.”

Yet with conversion rates of up to 60 percent when beacons are used to trigger offers, it’s clear that people respond to relevant offers that are delivered at the right time and the right place. Citizens are concerned about abuse of their data but love the experience that can be enjoyed when it’s used well.

It’s important to find solutions both with your loved one and with the users of mobile apps. Failure to do so can result in major emotional and financial distress on many fronts.

In the case of beacon aware apps, the stakes are higher than they ever have been. In addition to the existing issue of social media firestorms driving users to uninstall your app, there is the fear that public officials, scared of a potent election issue, will force whole networks of beacons to be uninstalled.

Scrappy startups may be willing to risk that, but in the “Beacosystem” these companies have to work with more established organizations that own the venues where the beacons sit, and these businesses are likely to be a lot more sensitive to reputational risks and the operational costs of installing and then ripping out beacon hardware.

This scenario is not speculative or an act of imagination, it has already happened in New York City. The parties involved had asked for permission but hadn’t got the right permission for the right thing from the right people.   When the press confronted the mayor about this privacy violation, he ordered hundreds of beacons that had been carefully installed around Manhattan to be decommissioned.

As more beacons are installed, this challenge is potentially going to get even worse. With web sites, it’s pretty clear that it’s up to the site owner to inform and gain consent from different users, but with beacons the ownership is less clear. The companies owning the beacon, the app and the venue could all be different.

Then we have the issue of wildly different attitudes amongst the public.

As someone that originally started writing about technology on a mechanical type writer, I am fine with a beacon being used to make a 911 call more precise so an ambulance can find me sooner (I’ve been feeling some chest pains thinking about the spousal argument), but I may feel different about an advertisement for TVs showing up on, just because I spent five minutes hanging out in front of the TVs at Best Buy. The young person, who is used to Snapchatting pictures of themselves in a bathing suit and is sharing their whole life online, is more likely to find that retargeting experience to be very cool.

Let’s talk about solutions. Maybe the rejection of the information gathering described in the Annenberg survey was because it was done “without my knowing”.

So all we need to do is offer an “opt-in” to our users and let them know what we are doing.


No, the 1 percent doesn’t just describe the percentage of people who control wealth in the US, it’s also the number of people that read the privacy policy when downloading an app. Even if you paid people to read it, they would still be confused, especially when the full power of beacons are unleashed and multiple companies use a single beacon.

If we are going to avoid the argument that we can’t win, we need to take the high road, go beyond the expected and design our systems “with privacy in mind.”

What does that mean? Well, in addition to all the things that the reputable companies do today on the web (telling people what they are doing, securing an opt-in, and making opt-out easy), we also need to make it simple for people to see the data we are collecting about them and control who gets access to it.

This can’t be done in a fragmented fashion. To require users to navigate a hundred apps to see the different parts of the elephant which is the data collected about them, is to deny them a practical way of getting visibility and control. A centralized solution sounds like a big job. Maybe, but it will get bigger if we postpone taking action. If we take action now, it can be manageable and help speed the adoption that this industry needs. It will require collaboration. People need one place to go, where anyone can see the data that proximity solution providers are collecting and genuinely empower them so they feel … so they are, in control. The folks at Unacast have started that process. is a not-for-profit, free service with APIs that allow those of us developing proximity solutions to provide a one-stop shop for consumers, where they can see their data and control who can use it.

Users go there to see their data; solution providers integrate so that view is centralized. Some users will opt-out, but others will see this as a real commitment to transparency and trust. Who knows, they may even correct the information when we make mistakes.

Location Control is in Beta today and is due to go production in Q1 of 2016. Proximity solution providers that integrate sooner rather than later can claim bragging rights that they were one of the first to actually do something about privacy, rather than simply paying lip service to the issue. Providing real transparency and control to users allows solutions providers to move forward more aggressively with the more lucrative personalization and targeting that would be a step too far in the absence of those tools.

Unacast are the same company that developed Proxbook, the crowdsourced directory of proximity solution providers that now has over 180 vendors in it. Major brands such as Unilever are now using Proxbook to source vendors for RFPs.

So why are Unacast doing this? Is it because they are nice guys? No. They are nice guys, but for them, as a provider of beacon network services, it’s pretty obvious that the only way they can be successful is if the Beacosystem solves these problems of privacy, transparency and control.

If we don’t act now, we can be sure the issue won’t go away. Abuses will happen, the 1 percent will see those abuses, Tweet about them and then the politicians will get involved.

So the question is, do we want government to sort out the problem (insert the name of your least favorite presidential candidate here), or do we want to work together and solve it ourselves?

I have some bias here as a writer, because I also serve on Unacast’s advisory board. I also have a bias because I’ve placed some bets on the Beacosystem coming of age; I’m writing a book about it. Being a writer and consultant on a dead ecosystem, or even an anemic one, pays even less than writers normally get. With ABI’s latest projections of a US$1B market, Target’s announcement of beacon integration in its app and Facebook giving away beacons to merchants, this is an exciting time for the Beacosystem.

Privacy used to be a feature, a hygiene factor, something that could be added as an afterthought, to keep the lawyers happy. The Beacosystem is different to the web; we are bridging the “awesome” power of digital to the physical domain that everyone lives in. People can’t leave their smartphones at home; the last thing we want is for them to switch Bluetooth off. “Designing with privacy in mind” is more than risk mitigation; it’s a competitive necessity, a requirement for accelerating adoption and for achieving the revenue growth essential for success.

Lastly, as a writer who has been married for over 20 years, I’ve found that there is no such thing as “winning an argument” with your loved one. I’ve realized that I’m not smart enough to do anything other than be straightforward and share control. A successful Beacosystem isn’t the same as a successful marriage, but I do believe that those ingredients may apply to both.

New Location Essential’s Stephen Statler

*The former head of Qualcomm Retail Solutions’ Strategy and Solutions Management groups, industry veteran Stephen Statler is principal consultant at Statler Consulting, writing, training and providing advice on the application of Bluetooth beacon technology to entrepreneurs, investors and venue owners. He is an Advisory Board Member of a number of companies pioneering in the application of proximity technology including: Unacast, Rover Labs and PassJoy. Details of his forthcoming book, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Beacosystem,” can be found at His past GeoMinds’ contributions have included Five Ingredients of Beacon Magic, Is Proxbook the Arrogant Bastard of the Beacosystem?, and Is Google’s Eddystone The Donald Trump Of The Beacosystem?

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