Solving the Location Privacy Riddle? – iBeacon Puts Users in the Middle, Maybe

It's Fathers Day! - Come in to get that card you haven't bought yet!

It’s Fathers Day! – Come in to get that card you haven’t bought yet!

While everyone was watching what the new iPhone would be, Apple quietly introduced a little bit of technology for the mobile marketers and mobile app developers that I think could be huge.  Location privacy out in space, meaning the real world, has been a hard nut to crack.  Balancing the desire to provide truly contextualized content with the user’s perceived sphere of privacy has led many to the wrong conclusions.  Remember these greatest hits:

In both cases what was lacking was notice.  Apple’s new technology can help out with that leg of my stool.  There is so much more here, so let’s review the three-legged stool of value, notice and control.  First, give me value for the information that you are collecting.  Second, provide me notice of what you are collecting and how you are using.  Finally, provide me control over the downstream use of my data.  iBeacon can enable all the legs, as well as force developers through those legs, too.

The technology promise of iBeacon

Hari Gottipati, on GigaOm, wrote a really nice piece on iBeacon and its technical particulars.  While the nitty gritty of the technology isn’t quite known, much can be surmised, as Hari did.  Simply put, when you walk into a location that supports iBeacon, you can be transmitted information and offers that are customized to you.  It provides contextualized content to me based on what I want.

It can direct my movements around a space, much like GPS does on the streets.  It can enable a truly customized tour around a museum for instance.  What about directing me to stores that support my loyalty programs?  This could be really cool stuff.  It even supports my home improvement store scenario.  Remember that?  I am near a home improvement store, my app knows I am there and that I am overdue for a furnace filter replacement.  It then notices iBeacon is supported there and alerts me to where the filters are, what size I need, and possibly offers to other things I might need as well.  I get a discount, I save time, and I buy the right filter.  How much information would I hand over for that scenario?  Quite a bit.

There is so much here.  I think this is one of those technologies that will only show its promise when the users and developers get it in their hands.  We won’t know the best implementations.  As a user, I am really excited.  But, as a lawyer I am even more excited as it seems that privacy controls could really put back in the users hands.

Contextualized content is already here in the form of Google ads.  In the form of online behavior tracking.  The problem there is that the control piece is lacking, or at least the ease of control.  This is where iBeacon gets it right and in the physical space.  It enables so much, but if done right (and I hope it is done right) it puts the user in control and in the center.

Privacy control in the hands of the user, what a concept

The difference is in control.  I mean real control, not just the illusion of control we have.  While Hari doesn’t touch on this point at all, I think that is the promise of this for consumers.  Within iOS there are controls over things like push notifications that provide some type of alert when things are being done.  I do have the ability to give blanket permission to things, but that is a positive step that a user must take.  The point is that the operating system itself can set up what all privacy advocates want, default opt-out.  Unless I take some positive step, I don’t get this wonderful service.

I have not done a comprehensive survey of all the privacy issues over the last few years, but it is probably fair to say that most of them were due to a system that opted you in by default.  Facebook changes its privacy settings and you are opted in by default, for instance.  The above examples are also opt-in by default.  You have no control.  iBeacon can change all that.  You might finally have control.

Notice and Value complete the stool

If this system forces you to opt-in, it allows you to be informed about what is going on.  In other words, notice.  The store, for instance, should provide a nice quick notice as to what is going on.  While I do not know how the process will work in practice, here is what I think is enabled:

    • Customer walks into store
    • iBeacon is running in the background waiting for a signal
    • The signal contains information about the store and what services are available through the system, and a short form privacy disclosure, including notice that other data may be combined
    • This notice can also provide a forum where the value is explained to me.  “By agreeing to this, we can help you find what you are looking for quicker, and provide offers customized to you.”
    • Customer is provided an agree/disagree dialog
    • Information flows back and forth and everyone is happy, including the privacy advocates because the customer has the opportunity to know what they are signing up for.

If enabled right, this would put the user at the center of this whole system.  That is where something like this really delivers on the promise.  Customer-centricity is what I think we have all been missing in these systems of contextualized content.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is also an opportunity to abuse this system.  Obfuscate what I am doing.  Take advantage of the customer’s propensity to just click through things to get what they want.  Some will do that.  I hope you don’t.

This is cool stuff

I am really stoked by what is going on here.  This is cool technology that engages my shiny-thing need.  I want this and I would be excited to be on a team implementing this in a store somewhere.  I think if Apple does it right, it will also force the developers to consider the privacy needs of its users without the developers knowing they are being forced.  That is the cool part of this from a privacy perspective.

We have all been telling our clients and our developer friends to baked privacy into their products.  Consider it from beginning to end.  Imagine a system that processizes that.  That forces the developer to insert something.  That forces an opt-in step.  Such a technology platform would be a wonder.  I think iBeacon can be just that kind of platform.  Let’s see if it goes down that path.

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