What Is Beacon Technology?

And does it make your life more convenient, less private, or both?

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

Person getting a coupon at a retail store due to beacon technology
Lifewire / Bailey Mariner

Beacons Support Proximity Marketing

Beacons are used in various environments, such as retail stores, to track customers' movements, via their smartphones, and deliver relevant information and offers. This type of interaction between businesses and consumers is known as proximity marketing. Beacon technology has been used by businesses in every industry since the Apple iBeacon was introduced in 2013.

The widespread use of smartphones creates these opportunities for location-based advertising and other services. For example, if you have the Kroger app installed, you’ll likely receive notifications of sales whenever you enter a Kroger parking lot. As you move through a Best Buy, you’ll receive different ads, coupons, and other messages depending on whether you’re in the appliance or Blu-ray section.

Restaurants use beacons to deliver coupons and promotions. Hotels use them to unlock doors. They're also used at sports arenas, airports, trade shows, and more.

Beacon Limitations

Beacon Distance Bluetooth

If this sounds a little too Big Brother for you, don’t worry. There are limitations to what beacons can do. First, they only work if you have the right app. The beacons at a particular retailer can’t ping your phone unless you give them permission to pair, which is done through installing the mobile app for that store.

Second, beacons don’t work when your phone's Bluetooth is turned off, so you’re in full control of whether your phone pings beacons. Even if you have an app installed, you can turn off your phone’s Bluetooth to cut off communications with beacons. You can disable Bluetooth on Android and iOS through the Settings app.

Android apps list, settings, and connections screen showing Bluetooth options

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. So, once you step away from a retail environment, it's no longer possible for the beacons there to track you.

Other Proximity Marketing Technologies

If you're concerned about privacy issues with proximity marketing, you should know that beacons can use technologies other than Bluetooth. GPS, GSM, Wi-Fi, and NFC location-based data can also be deployed for this purpose.

Wi-Fi is easily the most intrusive because your smartphone is designed to constantly search for Wi-Fi networks while you’re moving around from place to place. Businesses take advantage of this feature (along with geofencing) to track devices that pass through their networks.

A great defense against this type of tracking is the 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's harder to track. Still, the best defense against any type of tracking is to not bring a smartphone with you at all. If you do carry one, understand that you may be tracked, one way or another.