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Secret ad beacon network uncovered, shut down in New York City

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The discovery of secret beacons installed in New York City pay phone booths opens up some questions.

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For almost a year, a company called Titan has operated a network of advertising beacons, devices that are capable of identifying nearby smartphones and which are often used to push advertisements and information to them, installed within pay phone booths throughout New York City without the knowledge of its residents, BuzzFeed News reported today.

BuzzFeed discovered the beacons with an Android app called iBeacon Detector, which shows information about beacons operating within reach of the device on which the app is installed. With the app, BuzzFeed uncovered more than 13 of Titan's beacons operating "on a 20-block stretch along Broadway and Sixth Avenue" in Manhattan. A spokesman for New York City’s Department of Information Technology and Communications (DoITT) told BuzzFeed that Titan had installed about 500 of the devices throughout the city.

Titan told the DoITT in 2013 that the beacon project was intended "for maintenance purposes only," according to BuzzFeed. The department permitted the project without a formal review process, and Titan installed the devices between September and November of last year. The DoITT has received criticism for declining to inform the public about the project from both public interest groups and other companies in the beacon industry.

Since the report was published this morning, a spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told BuzzFeed that the city of New York has ordered Titan to remove the beacons from the phone booths.

The full report, which provides details on the extent of Titan’s project and is definitely worth a read, claims that "a source with knowledge of the situation" anonymously tipped BuzzFeed to the project. Presumably, the iBeacon Detector app was used to quantify the source with hard evidence of the beacons operating on the street level.

Beacons, although largely used to push promotions in retail stores or spread information at large events, are controversial in regards to their relationship with the general public. As Network World’s rundown on the technology explains, "the app can monitor location, estimate your distance to the beacon, and define the location based on the [Bluetooth Low Energy] signal instead of on GPS." Just last week, the U.S. Justice department arrested the CEO of InvoCode for selling mobile apps designed for spying on peoples' smartphones, which, among other things, monitored the devices’ location. In that context, a project that deploys beacons throughout a major city without the knowledge of those living in that city might actually be illegal.

What stands out from the BuzzFeed News report is how easy it could be for anyone to find unauthorized beacons operating in their neighborhoods.Titan admitted to BuzzFeed that it has deployed beacons in other markets, although it declined to provide any detail on those. If people keep sniffing the devices out on their own, the company might not have to.

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