iBeacon might be a scary tracking tool. It might also become a Privacy Enhancing Technology

A recent article in Wired describes iBeacon, a new Apple technology that profoundly increases automatic information sharing capabilities between devices. Based on Bluetooth Low Energy technology is already built into new Apple and Android devices, and is spreading rapidly thanks to new products and services that support it.

At first blush, this looks like a scary new tracking tool, which allows information in to seep imperceptibly from our smartphones to myriad other object-imbedded devices. It also enables pinpoint location tracking. Not surprisingly, the first marketing uses of this technology are already beginning to appear in stores like Macy’s. The privacy implications of cheep Bluetooth devices snatching our personal information out of the air are easy to imagine, and are scary.

So why do I think this might also become a Privacy Enhancing Technology? Simple. By making interactions between electronic devices more closely tied to our physical interactions in real space, it can becomes easier for people to understand the meaning and context of those interactions. It has been a recurring complaint that electronic data flows have broken down expectations about the ways that physical spaces mediate information flows about people. By bringing the electronic experience closer to the experience of being in a  physical environment, people will better understand and accept the context of those digital interactions. For example, I would far rather receive a coupon because I am in a store here and now, then find a coupon in e-mail or facebook when I am comfortably at home and don’t want to be marketed to.

So of course, the people behind Bluetooth LE applications will have to solve lots of issues with security, notice, choice, opt-in or opt-out, and secondary uses of information gathered through theses devices. Applications using this technology should be designed to respect the physical boundaries they exist in. But if app developers get it right, digital interactions in the real world might, just might, feel a little more natural.