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Phone Booth 'Beacons' Track New Yorkers' Movements

A Manhatten telephone booth on which the advertising space is controlled by a Titan rival. Credit: Jill Scharr/Tom's Guide

(Image credit: A Manhatten telephone booth on which the advertising space is controlled by a Titan rival. Credit: Jill Scharr/Tom's Guide)

Hundreds of New York City telephone booths contain advertising devices known as "beacons," tiny Bluetooth-enabled devices that can communicate with smartphones in close proximity, often for marketing or advertising purposes -- and can also be used to track customers' movements and buying patterns.

The NYC Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) knew about the beacons' installation and gave its unofficial approval — but according to Buzzfeed and the New York Daily News, which jointly broke the story, the program was never officially approved, and the public was never notified or consulted.

Hours after the story was first posted on Buzzfeed's website, the city asked that the devices be removed, Buzzfeed reported.

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The phone-booth beacons, which number about 500, are made by a San Diego-based company called Gimbal and distributed by the New York advertising company Titan. Titan manages the advertising panels on about 5,000 phone kiosks in New York City.

Gimbal beacons can cause advertisements to appear on Bluetooth-enabled smartphones that come into close proximity, but only if the smartphone has a Gimbal-supported third-party app installed, the user has given that app permission to receive Bluetooth advertisements -- and, of course, if the user has left Bluetooth on.

Gimbal beacons can also collect a lot of personal and location data from phones with Gimbal-enabled apps. According to the company's Privacy Policy, such information includes the date and time of day a smartphone passed near a Gimbal beacon, the location of that beacon, the user's age, gender and interests and a list of other apps installed on a device.

On Android, Gimbal-enabled apps can also collect the user's Web history and the frequency and duration of usage of other apps. The privacy policy stressed that Gimbal does not collect personally identifying information, such as names or email addresses.

Gimbal beacons are most frequently found inside stores or other retail locations.The telephone-booth beacons may be a significant departure from that trend. The DoITT and Titan both told Buzzfeed the booth beacons were part of a preliminary test concerning the beacons' usefulness in "inventory management."

Titan would have had to get the city's express approval before using the beacons for marketing purposes, DoITT spokesperson Nicholas Sbordone told Buzzfeed.

"To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency [is] of even greater concern," New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman told Buzzfeed.

The beacons were installed in the fall of 2013, reported Buzzfeed. The website added that neither Titan nor the DoITT would say where the beacons were located. However, by using an Android app called iBeacon Detector, Buzzfeed found a high concentration of beacons in Midtown Manhattan.

 Jill Scharr is a staff writer for Tom's Guide, where she regularly covers security, 3D printing and video games. You can follow Jill on Twitter @JillScharr and on Google+Follow us @tomsguide, on Facebook and on Google+.