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Your iPhone Will Talk to Stores While You Shop

iBeacon will change the way you do all that last-minute holiday shopping. But what about your data?
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If the holidays weren't enough reason to avoid the mall, beginning today in Apple stores nationwide your iPhone will be communicating with the store as you shop.

The folks at 1 Infinite Loop have placed tracking devices called beacons in their stores in order to offer a new kind of shopping experience. These beacons communicate with your phone via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology in order to offer you appropriate promotions, advertisements, and other information based on your location within the store.


Standing next to a new iPad? Well, hey, what do you know—your phone says there’s a holiday deal on those. Passing by the iPhones? Oh look, yours is in need of an update.

All iPhones from the 4 on upwards come equipped with this functionality, a “location and proximity detection technology” called iBeacon, if they are running iOS7.

Video by Estimote, a maker of beacons, explaining how the technology works and how it can benefit the retail sector.

iBeacon itself may not be news among the more tech-savvy, but the vast majority of people don’t know how to shut off an app or enable the emoji keyboard, so it’s doubtful everyone is aware of this service.

The good news is that it sounds like you can opt-out via a push notification the moment you walk into a Beacon-enabled store. The bad news? This is another opportunity to cull data from our everyday lives, data we ourselves paradoxically don’t own or control, under the guise of something helpful like a “customized shopping experience.”

A few months ago, a small company called Renew launched a similar project in England. Through a technology called ORB, the Renew began tracking consumers through MAC addresses, which are unique numbers associated with your mobile devices. Clients of Renew could place tracking devices in their shops to acquire data on customers and subsequently use that data to target ads at specific individuals via the can screens. People were outraged, and the cans were canned.

It's uncertain whether iBeacon is like ORB. Renew instantly overstepped its boundaries, publicly declaring their hopes to track not only customer shopping habits but other information like gender in order to air advertisements outside the confines of a shop. For now, it seems like the beacons just want to know your temporary location and offer you promos within the confines of a store and nothing else. And yet it is the same general concept. As Quartz notes, there's a lot of uncertainty about who sees what data. Even the branding is similar: ORB fashioned itself as internet cookies for the real world, while promoters of Beacon have called it "an operating system for the physical world."

What Apple has said with certainty is that it will not be storing the Beacon-collected data for itself. But in an age where data is among the most coveted of possessions, it’s not a huge escalation to imagine that someone will in the very near future.