Why You Really Shouldn't Worry About In-Store Beacons

In-store beacons push advertisements and other content to your phone using Bluetooth -- but only if you let them

When it comes to wireless tracking and electronic spying, paranoia is often the right response. Not always, though. Case in point: The rather hysterical flap over beacons, which use Bluetooth technology to detect nearby mobile devices and deliver advertisements and other related content. You'd think the little devices were something out of a sci-fi movie, ready to track your every move and send the data to the Dark Powers that be.

Thankfully, that's not the case, despite some wildly exaggerated reports. Beacons are one-way devices that send you information based on your location, but they don't store your data or send it anywhere. They won't even ping you unless you download specific apps and authorize them to communicate with beacons. That's the good news. The bad news is that beacons work directly with those apps, and the software could do something you won't like with your data.

Say you regularly shop at Bill's Sporty Sportswear. If you download an app associated with that store, the next time you cross the threshold a beacon could ping your phone and notify you of a closeout sale on camping goods. (Clothing stores in the United Kingdom are putting beacons inside store mannequins.) The beacons communicate with your phone via Bluetooth -- and that's it. If you don't install the store's app, the beacons won't know you're there. Period.

Beacons are growing in popularity, mostly for advertising. But as The New York Times recently pointed out, there's no reason they couldn't be used for other, less offensive reasons. A ballpark or a theater, for example, could use beacons to help you find your seat or lead you to a concession stand that sells your favorite sausage.

The larger issue here, though, is not just about beacons. Many mobile apps store data and share it with random third parties. As I wrote earlier this year: "The vast majority of the most popular iOS and Android mobile apps collect a variety of personal data from users, including location details, address book contacts and calendar information, according to a Appthority, a company that advises businesses on security."

Apps generally ask for your permission to collect data, but they sometimes do it obscure ways so users don't know they've given their approval. For example, the request could be buried in the tiny type of a user agreement or a hard-to-notice box could be checked by default.

App developers make money by sharing data with advertising networks and analytics companies. Do you really think they can make enough money to justify their hard work by giving away apps or charging just 99 cents?

The bottom line on beacons: Alone, they represent little or no threat. If you download an app that communicates with a beacon, you could be tracked and your data could be stored and sold to a third party.

Paranoia? Not necessary. Being selective about which mobile apps you download, however, is always a good idea.

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags securityprivacy

More about Bill

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Bill Snyder

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Will your data protection strategy be enough when disaster strikes?

    Speakers: - Paul O’Connor, Engagement leader - Performance Audit Group, Victorian Auditor-General’s Office (VAGO) - Nigel Phair, Managing Director, Centre for Internet Safety - Joshua Stenhouse, Technical Evangelist, Zerto - Anthony Caruana, CSO MC & Moderator

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place