What Beacon Technology Is and How It Impacts You

Is it an invasion of privacy?

Illustration of a bluetooth beacon in mall


PHOTOGraphicss / Getty Images

Beacons track our movements everywhere we go, and they’re the size of a sticker, so you probably don’t even notice them. The use of beacons is just one of many proximity marketing tactics used on consumers. Here’s what you need to know about beacon mobile technology.

What Is a Beacon?

Beacons are small devices that use Bluetooth low-energy (BLE) wireless technology to pinpoint your location and serve content based on where you’re at.

Consider this: Smartphones differ from computers in that we typically carry them around with us everywhere we go. This creates opportunities for location-based advertising and other services. For example, if you have your Kroger membership card uploaded to Samsung Pay (or the Kroger app installed), you’ll likely receive a notification of sales whenever you enter a Kroger parking lot.

This is beacon mobile technology at work, and it’s increasingly used by businesses in every industry since the Apple iBeacon was introduced in 2013. Retailers and restaurants use beacons to present coupons and promotions. Hotels use beacons to unlock doors. Beacons are used in professional sports arenas, airlines, trade shows, and more.

How Do Beacons Work?

Beacon Distance Bluetooth

As you move through a Best Buy store, for example, you’ll receive different ads, coupons, and other messages depending on whether you’re in the appliance section or Blu-ray section. These are all sent via beacons set up in the store.

If this sounds a little too big brother for you, don’t worry. There are limitations to what they can do.

First, beacons only work if you have the right app. Beacons can’t ping your phone unless you give them permission to pair, which is done through installing the mobile app. If you don’t have the app installed, you won’t ping the beacon.

Second, beacons don’t work with when your phone's Bluetooth is turned off. Unlike the store’s Wi-Fi network, you’re in full control of whether your phone pings beacons. Even if you have the app installed, you can manually turn off your phone’s Bluetooth to cut off any communications with beacons.

Third, beacons have a limited range. If you’ve ever used a Bluetooth device, you know the range is limited to half a mile in the most ideal, unobstructed, outdoor conditions. Walls, merchandise, other device signals, and other obstacles limit this range to 100 meters or less.

How to Stop Beacons From Connecting With Your Phone

The nice part about beacons is that you do not have to be part of the process. A simple shut-off of your phone's Bluetooth connection will keep you out of the marketing loop.

Bluetooth Settings Android

To disable Bluetooth on Android:

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Select Connections.
  3. Slide the On/Off button to Off.

To disable Bluetooth on iOS:  

  1. Tap Settings.
  2. Select General.
  3. Touch Bluetooth.
  4. Slide the On/Off button to Off.

Other Proximity Marketing Technologies

It’s hard for the average person to determine when they run into beacons because they aren’t the only smartphone technologies used in proximity marketing. GPS, GSM, Wi-Fi, and NFC location-based data can also be leveraged.

If you’re worried about privacy, Wi-Fi is easily the most intrusive. This is because your smartphone is designed to constantly search for Wi-Fi networks while you’re traveling through the city, even if WiFi is disabled. Businesses often take advantage of this feature (along with geofencing) to track any devices that pass through their networks.

A great defense against this type of tracking is a combination of a VPN and a MAC address spoofer. The VPN encrypts all data you transmit, and the MAC spoofer hides your device’s MAC address so it can’t be tracked as easily. 

Of course, the best defense against any type of tracking is to not bring a smartphone with you at all. If you do carry one, understand you can inevitably be tracked, one way or another.