The security firm Context Information Security recently put up an extensive and interesting post that points out that gadgets that use Bluetooth Low Energy — as most wearables do — can be tracked, and could therefore be seen as a security or privacy risk.
The report gives background on beacon technology, which uses wireless signals to serve up location-dependent content. Major League Baseball and Apple are particularly advanced in the way they use beacons.
But Context also makes the point that Bluetooth Low Energy has beacon technology built into the spec — and that any device that uses BLE is broadcasting location data and some kind of identifying tag. In some cases, it’s just a MAC address; in others, it’s semi-random data like “Jawbone3049-103.” In still others, it may be an ID like “Dan’s Fitbit Surge.” The company has built an Android app that can scan the nearby area (BLE has a very limited range) for beacons.
Whether this horrifies you or makes you think this is a market opportunity depends largely on who you are. We had a conversation a few weeks ago with Dave Matthews at the beacon platform company NewAer, who makes a good case that discoverability of devices can be a social and business good. Imagine walking into a party and being able to tell who in the crowd is a LinkedIn or Facebook contact and where in the room they are, so you could either engage them or avoid them.
Context notes that the beacon capability was built into version 4.0 of the Bluetooth spec, and that the most recent version (4.2) has added some encryption to make associating devices with people a little more difficult. But it may be well to keep in mind: if you’re wearing an activity tracker, it’s not just activity that it’s tracking. It’s you, too.