iBeacon, Privacy and Consumer Perceptions

Jan 31

iBeacon, Privacy and Consumer Perceptions

Its hard not to have heard about iBeacons and theres some confusion about their potential and weaknesses. In this post I’m covering how user’s perception of privacy is changing – just like many older generation initially resisted Facebook over privacy concerns and Zuckerberg’s relentless position that “sharing is good”

Introduction to Low Energy Bluetooth

Its hard not to have heard about iBeacon – but for the initiated….most of the new phones have a new technology called “Low Energy Bluetooth” (BLE). BLE is the latest iteration of the well-known Bluetooth that has commonly been used for hands-free mobile calls.

The huge benefits of BLE are low-drainage on phone battery and also peripherals like headsets, heart-rate-monitors, watches etc etc.

The iBeacon use-case

iBeacon is Apple’s brand for a protocol on top of BLE an many of the applications and is commonly used for location/proximity detection. The classic use in a “Bricks and Mortar” context is to:

  • sprinkle some iBeacons (these are small plastic boxes) near the entrance to a store
  • OR sprinkle some iBeacons around the aisles of a store
  • allow an App on a shoppers mobile phone to detect when they are near one of these iBeacons
  • trigger some Location specific benefit to the shopper.


Privacy perceptions of Location Tracking

Many people now reasonably think the NSA or Murdoch will be hacking their phones and personal rights of privacy…and…iBeacons may be part of that. I agree its fair enough to have a healthy skepticism but most consumers are increasingly conditioned to trade their location in exchange for some consumer benefit. Using Google Maps is a complete no-brainer for trading my location so I can get directions to where I want to go!


iBeacons can’t track you without consent

Its important to understand that iBeacon and BLE beacons can’t track you if you don’t opted in:

  • First a user has to download an app
  • Turn on Bluetooth
  • Allow Location Services for the App
  • So being tracked without consent can’t happen.
  • Also – many/most beacons may just emit a signal and can’t monitor you anyway. Its your application that is sniffing for beacons, not the other way round!


How Consumers perceive location services on iOS

The simple way consumers on their iPhones perceive location is via this indicator.



Apple in their infinite wisdom made iBeacons part of location services (both for Developers and Users).


When a Developer wants to access iBeacon capabilities, the App needs to “Ask the operating system” (and hence the user) for Location Services permissions.

So if a user likes an iBeacon enabled App but traditionally didn’t like Location Services (because of perceived battery drain) they can’t tell the difference.

Sure….they can browse which Apps are using location and enable/disable they per App. This screenshot shows an App using Location Services.

Another option could have been that Apple could have shown a different BlueTooth icon to show iBeacon was active.


so….we think user behaviour will change….

Now, users who were previously uncomfortable about location services from a battery drain perspective, won’t know if an App is doing GPS (high battery drain), Coarse-grained Location Services* (low battery drain) or iBeacons (low battery drain).

We think that ultimately (just like with Facebook) that users will become happier with the Location indicator on their phone – ultimately the utility it delivers will exceed their privacy and battery concerns. They will “opt-in” to each application and its incumbent upon App Product Managers/Developers to communicate the valuable utility provided by iBeacon or other Location Services.


What about Android?

As mentioned above, iBeacon is just Apples branding for a protocol over BLE. Android supports the same capabilities and handles the privacy elements in a similar way. I might do a more detailed post on that in the future.

* StreetHawk’s Background location services was designed from the bottom-up to protect battery and privacy. When a StreetHawk powered App operating in the background its not high resolution location and therefore NOT turning on GPS. So, battery drain in your App would be unchanged (or negligible).


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