A couple of months ago in this space, we pondered the question of what New York City would do with its 11,000 mostly-useless pay phones. The city has historically reconfigured and repurposed the architectural detritus of its prior incarnations to interesting, if occasionally tourist-baiting, results, and pay phones seemed to represent a opportunity to implement something potentially useful, like WiFi.
Whatever the city decided to do with phone booths, it was (and is) a safe bet that the initiative would have some benefit for Titan, the media company that controls the most advertising space in New York City’s phone booths (over 5,000 panels across the five boroughs). But, it turns out, the phone booths were already customized to Titan’s benefit. As BuzzFeed and the Daily News reported yesterday, Titan implanted about beacons, devices that can be used to track people’s movements and push ads to their smartphones, in about five hundred pay phone booths in Manhattan.
This all happened between September and November last year, sans public notice but with the consent of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, according to BuzzFeed. As they describe:
Beacons are Bluetooth devices that emit simple signals that smartphones can pick up. They’re best known for their growing use in commercial settings: in stores, for example, to alert customers to sales, or in stadiums, to tell patrons which entrances are least crowded.
The beacons were manufactured by a San Diego company called Gimbal, which also designed a proprietary app that corresponds to the device. In order for beacon-driven content to be pushed to your phone, you must have the app.
So, no big deal, right? Maybe. But worse than anything the beacons might be capable of is the fact that they could, theoretically, be used to track phones; that they were installed secretly; and that no one knew about them even a year later. The optics are certainly bad for the city: within hours of BuzzFeed publishing the story, City Hall asked Titan to remove the beacons. But, like cameras on the subway, the implied threat is worse than the actual one. If the city keeps beacons in the phone booths secret, what else might they not tell us about? (One example: targeting spying on practicing Muslims.)
“To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency (is) of even greater concern,” the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, told BuzzFeed. The DoITT and Titan insist that the beacons were currently in use “on a test basis only.”
Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.