Let’s say you need a few things—a new belt, some laundry detergent, and a birthday present for your nephew—so you head to your favorite one-stop-shop, Target. When you get there, you pop open the Target app on your phone, to see if you have any coupons installed or which detergent is on sale this week. When you do that, not only are you gathering information from the store, but the store is gathering information from you, using tiny beacons installed throughout its aisles, as well as on your phone.

Beacon technology has been around for a few years, but it continues to expand in both reach and sophistication. Relying on Bluetooth connections, it is able to locate a user within a few feet or meters. Unlike GPS options that do not work well inside buildings, or cell tower tracking that is not very accurate in specifying people’s exact locations, beacons are both more functional in various places and more precise. They can even determine within a few inches where a person is in the store. Thus Target might ping you with an exciting ad to get you to make an unplanned purchase of the latest version of a video game if you pause by the display for a moment, or it might update your promotional offers to suggest a better price on a bundle of a book and stuffed animal, even though you’d only planned on getting your nephew one gift.

But let’s say you’re pretty smart about privacy protections, so you expressly choose not to download any retailer apps, to avoid this kind of tracking. Even if you head out to your local Target, you avoid opening the app, such that you do not allow the store to link its beacons with your phone. That’s fine—but it isn’t a guarantee of privacy. Instead, beacons have been added to a far more extensive list of apps that have little to do with retailing. For example, the millions of users of weather apps usually grant them permission to track their locations, so that they can have accurate information about the rain chances for their exact location. But many weather apps have agreed to include third-party beacon technology, usually for a fee, within their digital functions.

Thus, when you visit a mall—or a museum, airport, gym, hospital, or movie theater—the beacons in these popular gathering places learn where you are, without you ever being aware of it. Other beacons know how you managed to get there, because they are installed on public busses and subway systems.

With these extensive and varied installations of beacons, companies collect data about literally millions of people, often without their conscious knowledge. One location data firm thus claims that it can provide insights into the movements of about 50 million consumers each month—including an estimated 38 percent of the vastly appealing target segment that it defines as “millennial moms.” With these data, retailers can benefit not only from nudging consumers to buy at the moment they are ready but also by avoiding sending annoying marketing communications to those who have decided not to buy. If you dashed past the candy aisle for example, the beacons might perceive that you’re really trying to cut back on sugar, so Target could avoid making you feel sabotaged in your efforts by realizing it should not send you a coupon for half off a package of Sour Patch Kids.

Some of these benefits also might help consumers, who arguably will receive more appealing, better targeted, and less annoying marketing communications. The question is what happens for consumers for whom those benefits are not sufficient to outweigh the loss of privacy associated with a data provider or retailer knowing exactly where they are at virtually all times. For them, the inexorable spread of beacons ultimately may prove unavoidable and unwelcome, despite their best efforts.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you use retailer-specific apps in physical stores? Do you recall agreeing to install beacon technology on your phone, if so?
  2. What kinds of limits should retailers and other beacon users be subjected to legally, when it comes to collecting people’s location information?


Source: Michael Kwet, “In Stores, Secret Surveillance Tracks Your Every Move,” The New York Times, June 14, 2019