iBeacon Myth Busting

There are two ‘myths’ about Bluetooth LE beacons that keep coming back. Whether it’s in the media or with a client they’re misconceptions about how beacons work. But while we like to be clear about the facts I’m not sure that either myth really matters.

Today, two articles try to puncture common misconceptions about iBeacon/Bluetooth LE:

  • First, that beacons somehow serve up content
  • Second, that beacons in a store are conducting surveillance or otherwise tracking shoppers

Myth 1: Beacons Track You

Marc Wallace at Radius kicks it off by reminding us that beacons don’t track people, apps do.

His post is a preface to the Future Privacy Forum and the role of his company in helping to draft a privacy framework and best practices. Marc points out:

iBeacons are transmit only. They do not receive or collect any signals from mobile devices. iBeacons don’t detect the presence of your mobile device and therefore have no ability to know you are near or track your location. The bottom line, iBeacons are inherently privacy friendly. You can see them, but they can’t see you.

With iBeacon technology, your mobile device is actually what detects the iBeacons. More specifically, an app installed on the mobile device can ask to be notified when the device sees a specific iBeacon. This works very similar to how geofences work when a mobile device crosses into a specific geographic location.

Keep in mind that in order for a mobile device to detect and react to an iBeacon, an app MUST reside on the device and have requested the specific iBeacon identifiers it is interested in. The benefit of this approach is that it gives the user ultimate control. If a user does not want to interact with iBeacons, he or she can opt-out by not allowing the app to use location services (iOS), turning Bluetooth off, or uninstalling the app on their phone.

Marc proposes that the opt-in nature of beacons is a great start for a privacy framework and proposes that “companies providing apps should implement mechanisms that recognize the user’s intent and be as transparent as possible with their customers to make sure that these options are properly communicated.”

We had made a modest proposal of our own and designed an approach where privacy controls were given a visible interface inside an app:


Myth 2: Beacons Deliver Content

R/GA meanwhile reminds us that beacons don’t deliver any content. It’s amazing the number of times this comes up. It’s an understandable error – because it makes intuitive sense that these little devices are a lot like little servers.

But no, you don’t need to send staff around from store to store “loading” content into beacons. (Yes, we actually had that question!)

R/GA reminds us:

The truth is that iBeacons don’t actually transmit content – they transmit a location, enabling apps to retrieve and surface location-relevant content. iBeacons are (thankfully) not a magical new way of automatically knowing who you are and sendingspam “content” to your phone just by happening by them.

Does It Matter?

But here’s the question: does either point really matter? When it comes to privacy, it’s important that people understand that beacons only transmit – there is no data collection other than what might happen on the app.

But if consumers get concerned they won’t really care. They visit a shoe store, their app responds with a coupon, and a week later they get a follow-up offer. If the consumer is worried about privacy they won’t care whether it’s the cloud or a geofence – and if they’re aware of the device that they saw in the store, they may associate the beacon with tracking.

Which is true – while the beacon didn’t do the actual tracking its presence can set off a chain that does allow tracking.

Which has us nodding in agreement with Marc:

iBeacons are powerful enablers for delivering new personalized services to customers. App providers leveraging iBeacon technology and the resulting proximity information have a responsibility to ensure that users are fully informed of these activities and aware of the opt-out options available to them.

And as for whether we need to “load” content into beacons? Don’t worry about it too much – the main thing your customer wants to know is whether it’s easy and whether they need their store managers to do a lot of work. To which the answer is usually no.

But what do you think? Is it a losing battle trying to explain that beacons are innocent in the discussion over privacy? Or does the fact that they help facilitate tracking through an app mean that the argument is mostly moot?

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14 thoughts on “iBeacon Myth Busting

  1. Just want to clarify my train of thought around Beacons. Regarding the first Myth – the specific app connected to the Beacon must be installed on the phone, as well as open/running in the background. If they walk into a store but do not have the retailer’s app running they won’t receive whatever the beacon triggers, correct?


  2. Doug, Matt: that’s true in iOS 7. However in iOS 7.1 (currently in beta) the old geofencing functionality returned and apps who were listening to geofences (including beacons) get triggered even the app was forced closed.

    Doug: In my understanding a user who doesn’t have intimate knowledge of the different types of location systems will just get confused by two different location options. Putting more settings knobs in is often the easiest way out but rarely the best solution and I think that’s the case here.


  3. Very informative, Doug and appreciated more than you know. I’d venture a guess that in the end. all the issues of privacy will come down to the delta between value and intrusion. Sadly, the consumers don’t always recognize the vast distinction between what violates their privacy and what annoys. That being the case, marketer care and vigilance is a must. Again, I think in the long run, any concerns that are portrayed in the media wrongly ore perceived wrongly by the consumer will be assuaged by a clear, quantifiable value upgrade over what is currently seen as an “interactive” shopping/event viewing experience.


  4. It’s true that closed apps can still listen for beacons. But the customer still has to download them, say “yes” in response to the app asking if it can use their location, and the customer can delete that app any time they want.

    So nothing is really changed. Beacons are 100% opt-in. A user must consciously choose to download an app (or Passbook coupon) and authorize it to listen for beacons, and not just ANY beacons, but the specific beacon, with the specific ID number, that the particular app is designed to listen for.

    There could be a million beacons in the same room and I’d never know or care. They are exactly like GPS signals, which we get 24 hours a day and don’t know or care.


  5. While it’s true that “Beacons” can’t track you. It’s important to point out that an App can make your phone serve as a Beacon, and that Beacon can be tracked by listeners in a store. Starbucks could easily add Beacon functionality to it’s existing app (which most users have already enabled for location services due to the store locator feature), and then install listeners in their stores to count your visits.


  6. Great post Doug, as usual! Beacons have been surrounded by all sorts of myths since the day they came in public purview. From battery longevity, to implementation challenges, to security and privacy concerns surrounding beacons, there has been ample cross-reading and misinterpretation of iBeacon technology. I recently wrote about some common misconceptions around beacons: http://bit.ly/1ERnwCo


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