Google is in the news (again) for creepy surveillance practices. Google, AP reported, is tracking your physical whereabouts even after you tell them to shut Location History off. Now Bloomberg reports they bought data about Mastercard transactions to link online ads with in-store purchases. These make for interesting stories, but the real story, not being discussed, is the online-physical advertising systems engineered by Google and Apple.
Over the last few years, there’s been a quiet revolution in retail marketing empowering advertisers to track consumers in physical space. Retailers have realized that, contrary to popular misconceptions, most retail purchases are still made in brick-and-mortar stores– not the online world of Amazon and Walmart. The capacity to track each of us in the physical world offers an untapped market for high-tech advertising. Google previously called this the Physical Web, a new Internet of Things frontier that melds the online and offline worlds into one.
To facilitate online-offline tracking, Google and Apple developed protocols for communications with mobile devices like smartphones. The idea is to make the physical world, like a poster on a building, something you can ‘click on’ (ie interact with) without installing a special app. The dominant weapon of choice is the bluetooth beacon – silly putty-sized units that broadcast bluetooth signals to track your precise location and send messages to your phone. Bluetooth beacons are now scattered about stores, airports, sporting arenas, malls, and other locales. The technology is several years in the making.
Back in 2013, Apple launched its iBeacon to much fanfare within the ad industry. Target, Rite Aid, Walmart, and American Eagle were among the first adopters. Not to be outdone, Google announced UriBeacon in 2014, which evolved into the Eddystone protocol.
In parallel, Google developed its Nearby APIs for incorporation into your phone. Google software scans the area around your device for bluetooth beacons (including iBeacons), which can then track you and broadcast messages to your phone. For example, if you walk by a bluetooth beacon, it might push a website URL to your phone that will display in your Nearby Notifications.
Bluetooth beacons function as a ‘light house’ to broadcast signals to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets. Unlike GPS, which can misread your location by a matter of several meters, bluetooth can determine your location with fine precision. If you walk down an aisle and a beacon is nearby, the beacon owner (retailers, advertisers, or product vendors) can determine you’re in that particular aisle or department. Beacon signals can reach up 70 meters.
Added to this, individual apps often package in ‘tracker SDKs’ that collect various forms of smartphone data and activity. A team of researchers found that over 7 in 10 apps incorporate hidden trackers (usually to monetize surveillance). Some of these trackers surveil your physical location using GPS, bluetooth, WiFi, or near-ultrasonic sound.
Physical location tracking is highly coveted by Big Data analysts, who are eager to exploit the coming IoT surveillance society. Marketers aim to serve you ‘interactive’ shopping experiences while tracking you across the ‘marketing funnel’. If you view a KFC advertisement at home, for example, how can they know you went to the store to buy the latest chicken sandwich? If you’re in a store, why not guide your shopping with an app, while ‘nudging’ you with targeted ads?
‘Proximity marketing’, as it’s known in the industry, aims to transform physical shopping into a total surveillance experience, bringing us one step closer to a Minority Report world. Will this become the new normal?
According to industry reports, the proximity tracking industry is expanding at a steady pace. Proximity location company Unacast says that 75 percent of the top twenty US retailers have implemented beacons.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Google and Apple’s Systems to Track you in Person: What the Media Isn’t Telling You’.