The Truth About iBeacons

April 19th, 2014

I recently read an article on NPR about a new capability that Apple’s iBeacons gained within the latest iOS release. To summarize, an app that supports iBeacon technology no longer needs to be running to get data from those beacons. While the NPR article is fairly balance, even though it has a sensationalist headline, the comments just show a total lack of understanding of the technology. I hope this response clears up any misconceptions.

iBeacons are built on Bluetooth. They’re short range radio receivers and transmitters. Its very similar to Google’s NFC, but has a greater range (roughly 200 feet). While they are still fairly new, they’re typical uses so far have been to approximate a customers position within a building. MLB is starting to roll this technology out into all of their stadiums and some retail stores have experimented with it for providing coupons, production information, and similar marketing information to potential customers.

In order to enable all of that, a user has to download an app from MLB, Macy’s, or wherever. The thing Apple changed is that once you closed the app, the OS still listens for the beacons. When it hears a signal from one of these beacons it can notify the app that it is in range and can push out an alert. Even at maximum range, the farthest a beacon can track you is to the parking lot. It’s similar to how Nike+ can run in the background while you listen to music or make a phone call while running. Except Nike+ has full access to your GPS wherever you are and these beacons only work when you are nearby.

You still have to opt into this functionality. The only thing Apple did is make it harder to turn it off, but its still possible. You can either turn off Bluetooth or uninstall the app. There aren’t tracking you to home. The worse they can do is track you lurking near the lingerie section of a department store and if you get caught doing that, that’s your own fault.