Why Aren’t People Freaking Out About iBeacon?



The new iOS 7.1, which Apple launched this week, contained massively improved iBeacon functionality.

Among these improvements is that Apple has cancelled an element of user permission. Once you’ve installed a store’s app — say, for example, Apple’s own Apple store app — that store can put messages on your lock screen even if the app isn’t running!

I think it’s a real improvement. But I’m surprised privacy fans aren’t freaking out.

I interviewed Doug Thompson this week on my show, Tech News Today, who very clearly explained what iBeacon is and how Apple changed it. (Thompson is blogs on the BEEKn blog, which is focused on beacon technologies, design and development.) If you want a quick primer on what iBeacon is and how it’s been upgraded, I recommend my interview with him.

In a nutshell, the improvements to iBeacon fall into two categories. The first is in the area of general performance. Overall responsiveness for iBeacon is much better than before, according to developers who have tried it.

The second is in the area of permissions.

It’s a bi-product of the fact that the public doesn’t understand the magnitude of how iBeacon and beacon technology will change human culture that the techno-panic crowd isn’t freaking out about the update.

In the past, iBeacon was opt-in. Now, it’s opt-out. In the previous system, iBeacon-enabled stores, stadiums and museus were required to ask permission of the user for iBeacon access to their phones. Now, they no longer need that permission. Apple has already granted permission to the stores to access your iPhone.

You do have to install an app, though. For example, let’s say your local mall installs an iBeacon system for directions to stores, promotions, coupons and other information. Your iPhone won’t be affected by their iBeacon system unless you install the mall’s app. But once you do install the app, the app no longer needs to be running in order for the iBeacon system to interact with your phone.

So with the mall’s app not running at all, you’ll still get messages on your lock screen from the mall’s iBeacon system.

This is a huge shift for Apple. In the past, according to Thompson, an app had to be running in order to throw up messages onto the lock screen. Apple appears to be making an exception for iBeacon apps.

If you signed up for the mall’s system because you wanted to get discounts from the Gap. And later, the Gap goes out of business and is replaced by Victoria’s Secret, which also uses the mall’s iBeacon system for promotions, you’re now going to get underwear ads on your lock screen without granting any permission or even running the app.

Don’t get your panties in a bunch, though. Uninstalling the app, or re-setting the location permissions or shutting off Bluetooth will each opt you out of the mall’s iBeacon system.

You should also know that iBeacon beacons don’t actually track you or collect data from your iPhone. They can only transmit information TO your phone. They provide data about location to your iBeacon-supporting app, tell the app where you are with vastly higher precision than, say GPS or cell-tower triangulation can, and they can do it indoors. Any reporting of location, any transmission of data, any downloading of data happens through your phone’s WiFi or mobile broadband connection, controlled by the app and governed by the permissions you’ve granted.

What’s great about the new iBeacon, and it’s opt-out approach is that it should drive a lot more adoption toward iBeacon. In the past, any prospective retailer or app developer might have sifted through the details of iBeacon and found the prospect of getting people to use it daunting.

And ask yourself: How often have you, an Apple fan devoted enough to read Cult of Mac, use Apple’s iBeacon app when you’ve gone into the local Apple store. If you’re like the majority, you’ve never tried it. If you’re like one minority, you tried it once and never did again. The percentage of Apple store users who turn it on each time they go in almost certainly rounds to zero.

Under the 7.1 release, though, anyone who has installed the Apple store app will now get pinged when they go in. If Apple pings with useful or compelling information, the user will launch the app and participate.

In other words, making iBeacon opt-out for the users who have installed the app is a minimum requirement for it to have a prayer of being useful to stores and app developers.

I think the upgrade to iBeacon, and specifically the conversion of notifications from opt in to opt out is a great one. But I’m frankly surprised that privacy fans, the sort of people who falsely believed the old iBeacon was already a privacy violation, aren’t having fits about this new feature.

  • dcj001

    Here is what iBeacons will amount to in the future:


  • dcj001

    Here is what iBeacons will amount to in the future:


  • D R

    in this respect, iBeacon is worse than NFC, because Apple doesn’t have a ‘disable iBeacon’ setting, just a disable Bluetooth setting, which also affects everything else that uses bluetooth.

    and there isn’t much you can do once the app is signaled by iBeacon, because there is no “don’t let this app communicate with the internet” setting, and all it has to do is store the date/time and which iBeacon it received to know very precisely where you were, even if you don’t let it access internet immediately by disabling your data connections [as you will eventually re-enable them sometime or else your smartphone gets pretty dumb real fast].

    What this change really means the retailer/whomever just has to appear to provide a useful service once to get the user to accept it, rather than having to do so on an ongoing basis.

    • GC

      You don’t need to disable Bluetooth to disable iBeacon although that is one way to do it. All iBeacon does is send you alerts through Notification Centre so if you don’t want the alerts then disable them in Notification Centre settings for the app.

      As for your privacy concerns you seem to not have read the article. According to the article, the info flows one way. In other words alerts are sent to you no info about you is sent back. I imagine that Apple’s app vetting process will make sure that apps implementing iBeacon will conform to this restriction or they will not be approved for inclusion in the App Store.

      • D R

        No. The bluetooth part is one way [from the iBeacon hardware to your phone]. The data from the beacon is either presented by Apple as a notification that you can download an app OR, it the app is present, it goes to the app [this is the main point of iBeacon, for the store app to receive it]. Once the app receives it, it can do WHATEVER it wants with it, like saving it in a database or presenting a notification that the shirts on the rack you are near are on sale.

        But this is the main point of the system. To deliver the iBeacon, which is the exactly location where you are right now, to an application, which will then use it for the benefit of the creator of that app. After the first notification, where Apple asks if you want to install the app for the iBeacon, you may NEVER be notified again that the app has received another one, as it is entirely up to the app what happens. It can just store it and then upload your iBeacon movements [for that developer/store] to the store’s servers when convenient. It may offer you discounts, or directions within the store, or whatever, but it is entirely within the discretion of the developer as to what happens.

      • GC

        My understanding, from this article and others, is that iBeacons will not alert you to anything unless you have a complimentary app to go with it. In other words if I walk into my local grocery store that has beacons deployed I will not know and the phone will not alert me to the fact that beacons are around unless I have the grocery store’s app installed. If you have read anything different please provide a link, I am very interested in knowing. If it works the way you say this could be very annoying if beacons catch on and get widely deployed. That is why I think you are wrong.

        Let’s assume you are correct that some info flows back to the app developer. I think, when these types of technologies are deployed, the benefit has to be mutual. Back to my grocery store example. If the grocery store presents me with coupons when I enter their store I am gaining a benefit. If they track me as I walk around the store they may learn something about traffic flow through their store and use that to make improvements/changes that benefits them. If I gain no benefit from having their app on my phone I will not install it and they will not gain any benefit since I will not have their app on my phone.

        As it stands now the grocery store app I have on my phone alerts me to new deals about once a week. I believe they correspond to their flyer release rotation. If they deploy beacons and use them to remind me as I walk into the store I see that as a benefit. If I pop open the app while I am standing in a aisle and it can show me the deals in that particular aisle, that’s another benefit.

        The great thing about the permissions system on the iPhone is that I can enable and disable this stuff very granularly. Yes, it requires knowledge to know you can do this and how but these are smartphones not dumb phones. They are powerful mini-computers in our pockets and they need to be treated as such. I an always reminding my family members that they are carrying a computer in their pocket. The phone functionality is just another app on a very sophisticated computer and they need to be aware of what they are installing and what the app is doing.

      • You are 100% correct. You need the app to get messages. If you don’t have the app, you won’t get any kind of notification when you are near a beacon.

        And that’s the great thing about beacons, you get notified when you need to be notified. Why would I want to get a messages about a great discount when I’m 20 miles away from the store when I can get it when I’m right in front of the product?

        It’s very simple but amazing technology. Just think of it as the indoor GPS.

      • D R

        you seem to imagine there is a ‘iBeacon’ behind the shelf of a product, and as you walk by, the app will give you a notification about it being a little cheaper for you. And yes, this will happen, in order to get you to keep the app installed.

        But in reality, the store will have every row wallpapered with these beacons, to track you throughout the store, see where you stop and for how long. And all this will be uploaded to the store’s server silently, with no visible sign to the user. Sure this will be mentioned somewhere in the middle of the privacy policy, but who even bothers reading them [or understanding how the store will weasel around the words in them]. All this info is CRAZY valuable to the large stores to get people to buy specific products for higher prices.

      • No, that’s not how they work. I’m already developing apps that use beacon tech and you can’t track people silently. The only way a store could track your movements around their store would be if you keep the app open, and that of course means that you are interested in getting track by the beacons so you can get offers.

        You see, when you enter a store and your phone is locked, the OS only allows an app to notify you for 5 seconds after walking into the beacons range. If you DON’T open the app after that, you won’t get more notifications AND the app WON’T BE able to keep tracking if you are near a beacon or not. Apple made it this way so you don’t get bombarded with hundreds of messages to get you to open the app. That’s the way they work and there’s no way around it unless you come up with your own OS.

        Besides, if they do find a way to track all your movement, what’s the difference with security cameras? They’ve been up there for decades and could easily show them which products customers are more interested in.

      • D R

        then you haven’t updated to iOS 7.1 yet and checked how it works.

        the app gets iBeacon notifications whether the app is running or in the background or even if the user force-quits it. and the app getting an ibeacon notification is silent, you only know if the app chooses to indicate it to you somehow, like sending you a regular iOS notification.

      • D R

        then you haven’t updated to iOS 7.1 yet and checked how it works.

        the app gets iBeacon notifications whether the app is running or in the background or even if the user force-quits it. and the app getting an ibeacon notification is silent, you only know if the app chooses to indicate it to you somehow, like sending you a regular iOS notification.

        …evidently there is some issue with posting links here, but search stackoverflow for ios7.1 and ibeacon for more info

      • D R

        and to your other question, the difference is, one is entirely automated. it tracks YOU [as your iPhone is 99.9% of the time with you, the individual], it’s FAR cheaper, more accurate, can even be linked with your real name [if they don’t just straight out ask you for it] by linking your credit card name or loyalty card to your profile as you pass through the checkout, and they link what you purchased with your path through the store. this stuff is GOLD to the people doing store design and marketing plans, because it tells them how to get you to spend more.

        they have done/do this with camera’s now, because it is so valuable to them, only it’s also really expensive, so they don’t do it a lot. Giving you a 25 cents off coupon while getting you to buy product X for $1.50 more is a straight-up win for them, but also getting you to buy X,Y,Z because they just ‘happen’ to be nearby…that’s gold.

  • Geo ZiDani

    If you are looking for a news related to indoor positioning, indoor navigation please look at https://www.facebook.com/Indoorpos

  • dusanwriter

    Great post Mike – and it was great to be on your show, thanks for inviting me.

    A small clarification – there’s still the moment after you a download the app where you’re asked for permission to turn location services on. So yes, there’s a permission at the front end, but I’m splitting hairs: a lot of times a consumer might not understand what that permission grants.

    The flip from a “mostly opt in” to “mostly opt out” is a major change. It presumes that consumers will find it useful that their devices are contextual – but also presumes that that context will be relevant, otherwise app developers will find themselves quickly deleted.

    Retailers, for example, who struggle enough getting folks to download their apps, will need to be careful with beacons – it might seem to promise more downloads because who, after all, doesn’t want to be sent coupons as they wander the aisles? But of course not everyone does, and beacon experiences will need to be smart enough to know that.

    There’s a part of this which we call the Prisoner’s Dilemma:


    If enough developers get it wrong, it will be Bluetooth itself that gets turned off rather than specific apps.

    An incredible opportunity but incredibly challenging as an industry to get it right – so that it’s the consumer who wins.

  • BLFarnsworth

    From what I’ve read, an establishment’s iBeacon needs its associated app to be present. If the app isn’t there, then no messages (from the iBeacon establishment) are displayed. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong.

    I’ll try a few iBeacon-enabled apps when they’re available (like MLB when I’m at a ball park); if, however, I’m not getting any value out of an iBeacon-enabled app or if it seems too much like spam or junk mail to me, then that app’s getting deleted — stat.

    • Actually Passbook (a native iOS app) is ibeacon enabled. So if you add a coupon, membership card, ticket or such like to your mobile wallet you can still enjoy the convenience of precise location based services. In ios6 this was only facilitated by GPS coordinates (which were inherently inaccurate and not precise enough for use in a shopping mall for example). The addition of ibeacons to passes makes for a very convenient consumer experience. And from passbook there is no data passed back to the “pass issuer”. It’s simply there to give easy access and convenience to the consumer to the right “pass” (coupon, store card, membership card, ticket etc) at the right location.

      • BLFarnsworth

        Thanks for the additional information!

        How hard is it for some people to realize that (for example) if I don’t want any iBeacon messages from, say, WalMart… then I simply don’t install the WalMart (iBeacon) app?

    • You are 100% correct. You need the app to get messages. If you don’t have the app, you won’t get any kind of notification when you are near a beacon.

      • Or a Pass (with a UUID) in your Passbook app. For example you may have a coupon, or a stored value card, or a membership card, or ban event ticket, stored in Passbook (the native mobile wallet on iOS) and when you are in the vicinity of the beacon a lock screen message will appear allowing convenient access to the ‘digital card’ so you can use it for some kind of real world transaction.

  • mahadragon

    Elgan is the only person who is excited about iBeacon. I was in the Apple Store in Portland OR and half the employees have never heard of iBeacon. None of the employees even knew how to turn it on for my iPhone. I had to figure it out myself. Turns out I needed the wifi turned on. So if that’s the case, all you have to do to avoid iBeacon alerts in the Apple store is to turn the wifi off.

    Elgan is making a bigger deal about iBeacon than it’s worth. iBeacon may mean something some day but in March 2014 iBeacon is completely worthless and meaningless to me. The Apple store didn’t put out any alerts in iBeacon (I walked every inch of the store and nothing popped up) and it’s doubtful retailers are putting anything out, given the unlikely event you can even successfully activate it on your iPhone.

    I can pretty much guarantee, no employee will be able to help you turn on iBeacon at Target or the ballpark, or wherever Elgan is saying they are now. Nobody knows what iBeacon is and nobody knows how to turn it on.

    • Yes. It is very early days at the moment. If similar to other technologies then it’s likely to be a year or more before consumers feel the real benefits (and merchants figure out how it can help them deliver improved service). A few years from now though ibeacons will simply be part of business.

      • mahadragon

        I totally disagree with what you’re saying. I think iBeacon is a tech that isn’t going anywhere. Yes, lots of companies are employing it, but if the management isn’t going to lift 1 finger to train the employees on how iBeacon is used, it will go nowhere, I guarantee you.

        I have first hand experience trying to turn iBeacon on and it’s actually not that easy. It doesn’t just pop on by default on your iPhone. You don’t just start getting alerts automatically as you enter the store.

        Apple stores have iBeacon but management hasn’t lifted 1 finger to train the employees on what it is, or how to use it. Very few employees at Apple stores have even heard of iBeacon let alone know how to turn it on.

        If iBeacon is to succeed at stadiums, then those stadium employees have to be trained to use it. If that doesn’t happen, iBeacon will go nowhere.

      • I totally agree if you are referring to the iBeacons that first came on to the market. They are just individual beacon transmitters – many of the battery powered (which is a maintenance headache) – and are programmed one-by-one. This of course is a massive limitation for stadiums etc…

        Efficient management of iBeacons is indeed critical to the successful deployment and there are now companies that enable this. Programming happens via ‘central management’ – so there is no intervention needed by employees (other than if they use a ‘staff app’ to see which VIP/customer is in the vicinity to also offer them offline service).

        It’s a little long winded to explain the many scenarios here but we issued a webinar series to further discuss the potential and expand on these opportunities. http://passkit.com/proximity-marketing-ibeacon-technology-webinar/

        Hope this helps mahadragon.

      • Buck Virga-Hyatt

        Hard to turn on??? You just have to have bluetooth turned on. Lots of people leave it on all the time. As for training employees in it’s use. What’s to train. It displays ads on your phone. that’s pretty much it.

      • Guest

        Your incredible ignorance proves my point. No, you don’t just turn bluetooth on. If you go into the Apple store, you need to have wifi turned on as well as bluetooth in order to receive alerts from iBeacon. And even then, to get alerts there’s yet more steps involved as you have to into the Apple App store App to set it up.

        I only know this because I was in the Apple Store and I couldn’t get iBeacon to work until I turned on wifi.

        And yes, employees do need to be trained. How are customers supposed to turn on iBeacon when they have difficulty? I can’t believe I’m even responding to your comment.

  • pandren

    The reason, I think, why security/privacy fans hasn’t protested is either that they’re not aware of iBeacon or actually see that there’s not an privacy issue here.

    There’s no need to be worried about getting iBeacon messages if you don’t even have the app in the first place. If you have the app and you get the “wrong” iBeacon messages you simply delete the app. As simple as that.

    I must admit that I’m super excited about iBeacon and see great potentials with it. It’s still in a learning process though. Both for app users and app developers but over all it’s a great improvement.

    The iOS 7.1 update, as far as regarding iBeacon, is absolutely a big improvement.

    What’s interesting, from another perspective, is that the Remote app is using Bluetooth as well. It’s been added. So is Apple going all-in with Bluetooth? Not really pleased with what Bluetooth does to my battery though.

    • D R

      But you are swallowing Apple’s message whole.

      Yes, the iBeacon itself is one way, from the vendor’s bluetooth module to yours.

      But once that beacon message is on your phone, one of two things happen.

      1. If the app for it is not installed, Apple will present a notification/dialog asking if you want to install the app for it. Then you can download it and you get to say “yes, enable location services for this app” so the app can get the iBeacon messages.

      2. If the app is installed and enabled for location services [which is the entire goal of this system], the app received the beacon and then does WHATEVER it wants with it. You may or may not be notified that it has received one, if you happen to be looking at the app [either then or afterwards]. You might be presented with discount offers, suggestions for merchandise, or just nothing at all. It can just keep track of your location as you move around the store and upload it to the store’s servers, either immediately or later if you don’t get a good cell phone signal in the store.

      But the thing is, after the first time, when you install and enable the app, you may never again get any visual notification that the app is getting iBeacon messages.

      • excv8


        I believe you are mistaken in your description in point #1 and that the functionality for prompting a user to download an app on encountering an iBeacon does not exist.

        However if you have any links that reference this functionality, please share so we can all increase our understanding.


      • I’m an ios developer currently testing ibeacons and there
        is no way to communicate with the user if they don’t have the app installed. So, you’re wrong about #1. You will NEVER get any messages from a store if you don’t have their app.

        As for #2, Tracking your location in a store could only help to find which products customers might be more interested in, but an exact triangulation is very hard. Bluetooth signals are very weak and get affected by metal objects, people, etc. so it’s not like they could track your exact location and send your info to the NSA lol. If you’re worried about sharing your location, why aren’t you worried about the GPS that has been working on your phone for years?

  • Richard Bagdonas

    iBeacons are simply transmitters and receivers. We all have an on-off switch for iBeacons. It is turning Bluetooth on and off. I think the most important thing is knowing which apps are turning on your phone’s listening and/or transmitting.

    At Mahana (http://www.getmahana.com) we let the consumer know that we are listening for the iBeacons that we have placed at various restaurants. And we let them know what we do with the signals. In our case we send the person’s name, picture, and past purchase history at that restaurant to the staff so they can customize the guest experience.

    We also send no ads to the app. Transparency and an ad-free experience is in our DNA. Consumers are given the choice to turn Bluetooth on and off to allow or disallow those signals from being sent. In the end consumers seem to like the transparency from Mahana.

  • Charilaos Mulder

    I’m not interested in iBeacons at all, just like I’m not interested in NFC. The reason being there aren’t any great real world appliances yet, let alone widespread. We’re solely talking about potential. Speaking of which, I’m afraid iBeacons will be used to spam people quite a bit more that they’d prefer.

    • No great real world appliances yet?

      Check this out: https://vimeo.com/84760383

      Have you read anything about beacons before making your comment? You cannot get notifications if you DON’T have the app. If you do have the app (which tells me you’re interested in the store/product), you can keep your phone locked on you pocket and only get notifications 5 seconds after walking near a store using beacon technology. If you keep the app closed, you won’t get more notifications. So no spam there.

    • BLFarnsworth

      I don’t think that spam will be too much of a problem. I had a conversation with a guy yesterday who was worrying that if he was in a mall, he’d get an iBeacon spam message as he walked by every store.

      Yes, he’d get a message from EVERY store — if *and only if* EVERY store had an iBeacon app *AND* he installed EVERY one of those stores’ iBeacon-enabled app.

      If he installed zero iBeacon-enabled apps, he’d get zero iBeacon messages.

      So, good news for the paranoid folks out there:

      No iBeacon-enabled apps installed on your phone = no iBeacon spam.

      Just like if you don’t have an e-mail account, then you can’t get any e-mail spam.

      Digression: You can, however, still get some Spam in a can, which is actually quite tasty, especially to Hawaiian residents, when sliced, fried, and served with eggs and rice. ;-) I actually just saw this offered as a breakfast meal item at McDonalds in Hawaii!!!

  • clipper99

    I read the following a few hours ago on another site and I thought it made sense. I dunno, I live in the relative sticks so I can’t see iBeacon showing up here anytime soon. Again, these aren’t my words:

    “People aren’t freaking out because you have to install the app and give it permission to receive iBeacons. The iOS 7.1 improvements only serve to make iBeacons work better for those who’ve enabled them. Before iOS 7.1, iBeacons were kind of useless. It makes perfect sense to allow iBeacons to be received when the app is installed, permission is granted, and the app isn’t explicitly running; otherwise users would miss the iBeacons they asked to receive.”

  • I am big on privacy. My first reaction that you are automatically logged in was horror. Then I stopped to think about it.

    If you download an app, by definition you are interested in it. Therefore you want/expect it to work. Yet it is unlikely (as the story states) that one is going to remember to run it every time you go to the relevant locations.

    As long as there remains a way to turn it off – and there appears to be several – I think this is ok.

    It is interesting that the beacon only communicates with the app, and cannot of itself learn who you are. But I am sure that in most cases the app will talk back to the store and give customer ID information so that the system knows who you are when you enter the store.

  • Guest

    Uh, it’s called deleting the app if you don’t like it. How is that not permission? Enough of this sensationalistic, link-bating “journalism”.

  • atimoshenko

    Having to install an app for each specific use-case is opt-out now? Bizarre…

  • One thing nobody has mentioned is that if your phone is locked, you can only get notifications for 5 seconds after walking into the beacons range. For example a welcome message from the store and an invitation to open the app.

    If you DON’T open the app after that, you won’t get more notifications. Apple made it this way so you don’t get bombarded with hundreds of messages to get you to open the app. You will only get notified again AFTER you leave the range of beacons AND walk back in.

    If you DO open the app, the system will keep notifying you of any offers or discounts as you walk around the store.

  • Bryan Gibson

    Simple. Own an iPhone 4.

  • Stefan Wolpers

    There is no need to freak out about iBeacon technology, as anyone needs at least to: a) download an app and b) enable Bluetooth before anything can happen – this is a true opt-in-scenario.

    I aggregated a lot of feedback from my consumer interviews into my recent deck: “iBeacons – Fad Or Trend? The Use-Cases For Retail And Omni-Channel Solutions”, see: http://bit.ly/1dpskG1

  • It may be good to clarify the Bluetooth beacon in the store isn´t transmitting anything specifically to you. It is simply radiating an identity to any device that care to listen for beacons.
    In case of the iOS7 Apple has integrated a beacon scanner process into the OS itself that in an energy efficient manner sense beacon signals appearing in the surroundings. When it senses a beacon identity that matches that of an installed app it will either fetch from the Internet and show stuff on screen that you have subscribed to, or wake up the app and notify it about the beacon signal. Based on the proximity information (how far from the beacon your phone appear to be positioned) the app can upon own discretion take decisions on how and when to notify you. Any information about products is simply based on translating the received beacon ID into what the app knows about the service associated with that ID and the app typically fetch such info from some remote web server. So there is no communication with the store beacon module. It just sits there transmitting its ID all year round.
    In the future it will be more common to find beacons that your app can connect to and exchange information. But it makes more sense for the app to connect to servers on the internet in the store product advertising scenario. There can also be other things going on such as the app keeping a record of the fact that you were in proximity of a store that it represents and the app reporting to some server that collect such data mining statistics about customer habits and flows.
    You can find more tech details about it here: http://www.devfright.com/ibeacons-tutorial-ios-7-clbeaconregion-clbeacon/