Three of the country's largest cities have been installing Bluetooth-enabled devices in public places to detect simple data from users' smartphones. The devices, called "beacons," were installed in Los Angeles bus benches, Chicago train stations and New York City phone booths all without the public's prior knowledge, BuzzFeed reported.
Gimbal, the San Diego-based company that manufactures the technology, states on its website that the beacons help deliver the content, offers and information consumers want, when and where it matters to them. By understanding consumers' unique interests and their precise location, it says, Gimbal enables you to deliver the most relevant content.
Beacons do not automatically tap into users' information. However, they do use Bluetooth-enabled software that, after sending a signal to one's phone, asks them to “opt-in." Once consumers do that, Gimbal-powered apps can detect when you walk by a beacon and in some cases even the websites you visit.
Martin Outdoor Advertising, the company behind the Los Angeles beacons, has installed the technology in less than 5 percent of the city's more than 5,000 bus benches. Outdoor media company Titan installed more than 40 beacons near 11 of Chicago's rail transit stations.
Chicago Transit Authority spokesman Brian Steele said those beacons were only a "test" which lasted about two weeks, but Steele said Titan will begin a new testing phase “that will be longer in duration and possibly scope."
A spokeswoman for Titan confirmed that the company has tested proximity beacon technology in some of its New York out-of-home assets to understand how and if the technology works in dense urban areas.
"There are many potential beneficial safety, communication and way-finding use cases for municipalities using beacons, as well as some potential commercial use cases. Titan is committed to testing new technologies which may have future benefits to its municipality partners and their constituents," she told TheBlaze.
Similar technology was also installed inside New York phone booths, TheBlaze previously reported.
"The installation of beacons without the public’s knowledge or prior input is of grave concern," New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said. “To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency [is] of even greater concern."
But the Titan spokeswoman told TheBlaze the company has removed the beacons from all New York City locations at the city's request.
The Illinois Civil Liberties Union, Southern California Civil Liberties Union and Gimbal did not immediately return requests for comments from TheBlaze.
Follow Jon Street (@JonStreet) on Twitter
Front page image via Shutterstock