One of the lesser-heralded features in iOS7 is “iBeacon,” Apple’s implementation of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) technology. To the extent anyone is talking about this yet, iBeacon has been seen as a rival to the Near Field Communication (NFC) technology used by Samsung, or a convenient way to pipe coupons into your phone. But history will look back at it as a major step forward in manifesting the Internet of Things, and in eroding any remaining illusions of privacy we have in our physical whereabouts.
How BLE Works
BLE is a means of transferring data. Beacons using BLE are tiny, wireless sensors that transmit data within a 10-meter range. At present, they support only low data rates and send only small data packets, but these are perfect for interacting with iPhones and wearable computing devices such as smart watches and fitness trackers.
In light of the current proliferation in such devices, therefore, it’s safe to say that in the near future we may carry a half-dozen devices or more that are equipped with BLE or equivalent technology.
One of the most obvious applications of BLE is micro-location geofencing. GPS technology is great for determining your approximate location to within a few feet, but it relies on satellites that can’t see into buildings very well. A mobile device running iBeacon or other BLE technology, however, can interact with nearby beacons to determine its precise location, even indoors.
Set up around a store, they could detect shoppers entering and exiting, and send them coupons (customized to your unique shopper profile) or even internal directions. Picture Minority Report without the retinal scans. You could even pay for goods without ever pulling out your phone, just like the newest vehicles will open their doors even when your key stays in your pocket. PayPal is already developing just such an app using BLE.
A Data Infrastructure
The real potential of BLE lies not in coupons, but in the Internet of Things (IOT)–the burgeoning trend towards making physical objects internet-connected and digitally interactive. Just like humans can’t meaningfully interact with the world around them without their five senses, so too will IOT-enabled objects lack interactivity without some means of sensing and communicating with their surroundings. BLE and iBeacons are a major step toward providing that ability.
Moreover, as I’ve written about before, each one of those beacons will be able, in theory, to have its own unique IP address on the internet. Last year’s update of the Internet Protocal address system from IPv4 to IPv6 increased the total number of IP addresses from a mere 4.3 billion–a number we’ve already reached–to 340 undecillion (i.e., 340 trillion trillion trillion). As I wrote then, “literally every single one of those units–every Barbie doll, toilet paper roll, and random chatski–can have its own unique IP address on the internet. Each becomes a data point capable of reporting its exact physical location on a real-time, global map. ”
BLE is especially exciting for those developing augmented reality (AR) technology. AR enthusiasts (like me) envision what they call a “clickable world,” where a person can physically interact with a physical object and get a digital response. Imagine, for example, touching your bathroom mirror to get a display of the morning’s news. Or picking up an item from a store shelf and seeing a digital readout in mid-air about the product. Or seeing a business’s store hours and sale information from the sidewalk just by pointing at a building.
Interactions like these are limited only by our imaginations. We will certainly see even more creative and useful applications emerge once BLE beacons become more widespread. Just like a real estate developer needs an infrastructure of water pipes and power lines in order to build a subdivision of houses, so too will software developers need an infrastructure of BLE or similar sensors in place before the Internet of Things truly takes shape.
Walking in Snow
Once more people are using this infrastructure, though, its consequences will become more apparent. Digitizing our physical interactions will create a digital record of our movements and whereabouts that had never previously existed. For advertisers and retailers, this will be a goldmine of information just like social media was before it–a brand-new trove of personal data that can be used to send out even more precisely targeted commercial solicitations. Without doubt, those providing IOT services will not only want to recognize who we are, but also to remember where we’ve been.
And just like we do online now, many users will consent to their information being collected in this manner. The convenience factor will be huge. Just like I want my webmail service to remember who I am without having to re-type my password every time, so too will I want my clothing store to remember my size, my restaurant to remember my favorite meals, my grocery store to remember the location of my favorite items, and the news feeds that I’ll see projected everywhere to remember my favorite topics.
But others will be remembering that data as well. Thanks to Edward Snowden and the NSA, the world is already aware of how much information private companies and the government collect about our emails and other online interactions. Law enforcement already does all it can to track a suspect’s physical movements, whether through cellular towers, IP addresses, or GPS trackers.
With a BLE infrastructure in place, however, merely walking down the street with one or more BLE-enabled devices on our persons will leave behind so much data about our physical location that it may well become possible to create precise maps of our every step going back hours, days, or even longer. It will be like tracking footprints in the snow as opposed to on a dry sidewalk.
And you thought data privacy issues were already complicated.