back to article iSPY: Apple Stores switch on iBeacon phone sniff spy system

Apple has switched on its controversial iBeacon snooping system across 254 US stores. The fruity firm's iSpy network allows Apple to watch fanbois as they walk around an Apple store and then send them various messages depending on where they are in the shop. This might come in handy when visiting an Apple store, for instance …

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  1. willi0000000

    paranoia

    am i too paranoid for thinking that NSA can probably turn location monitoring on and off remotely without your knowledge?

    or am i not paranoid enough?

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: paranoia

      You're not paranoid enough. The NSA gets location data from the cell companies, and have no need of using the data from location services. They can get this information from any model of phone no matter if you've rooted and it and personally compiled your own software for it, since they aren't getting it from the phone itself.

      The only way to stop them knowing where you are is to prevent your phone from contacting the cell site (airplane mode for moderate paranoia, wrapping the phone in several layers of foil for maximum paranoia) Might want to leave your phone at home when you do something highly illegal, in case the NSA is sharing this information with the FBI.

      A phone is typically "seen" by multiple towers, even though it only locks onto one. So the phone itself doesn't get a very good idea of where it is based on the cell signal it receives, which is why you want stuff like GPS and Beacon (which is Paypal's technology, not Apple's, so don't be surprised if Android doesn't support it at some point) for a phone to pinpoint its location more accurately.

      But given the data from every single tower, which the NSA gets according to Snowden's disclosures, you could easily triangulate the location of any phone closely enough to pinpoint the address it's located at.

      Have I increased your level of paranoia? You're welcome.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: paranoia

        "Might want to leave your phone at home when you do something highly illegal"

        Perhaps better advice would actually be to NOT do something highly illegal??

        1. thenim

          Re: paranoia

          These days, it's difficult to not to anything that isn't highly illegal... Given we are by default all terrorists and paedophiles...

      2. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Airplane Mode

        What are they going to call it now that you seem to be able to use your cell/mobile in-flight? Will it become some kind of an anachronism that people will laugh about in 20 years time? "Oh yes, well back in the noughties you had to turn your phone off whilst you were on an aeroplane...I know!"

        1. Wzrd1

          Re: Airplane Mode

          "Oh yes, well back in the noughties you had to turn your phone off whilst you were on an aeroplane...I know!"

          I use airplane mode on the ground, just for peace and quiet.

          Cell phone= Remote controlled nagging device, be it from home or work.

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: paranoia / Tin Foil

        Unfortunately I have determined in real-world tests that several layers of tinfoil are not sufficient to prevent wireless signals from reaching a mobile device.

        The only way to avoid tracking is to ensure there is no power to the device - remove the battery.

        1. Wzrd1

          Re: paranoia / Tin Foil

          "The only way to avoid tracking is to ensure there is no power to the device - remove the battery."

          True enough. That or make your favorite room into a faraday shielded room.

          The US DoD forbids cell phones in classified areas for a reason.

      4. Wzrd1

        Re: paranoia

        "So the phone itself doesn't get a very good idea of where it is based on the cell signal it receives,..."

        Wrong. That is precisely how aGPS operates. GPS operates off of military GPS satellites, aGPS operates off of cell tower position resection.

        And the term actually is resection, not triangulation. It's been part and parcel in smart phones for years, as GPS was power hungry, but the phone communicates with the cell towers anyway, hence it was cheaper in a power and cost sense to use aGPS over regular GPS.

        Now, if you want an increased level of paranoia, how does this one grab you?

        Your cell phone, smart or dumb, can be turned on from the tower when powered off, it can transmit conversations without it blinking that it is connected or the display showing it.

        Why do you think that the Taliban wanted the cell towers powered down at night?

  2. RainForestGuppy

    Not Spying

    "To take part all you need to do is download the Apple Store app and agree to let it track your location."

    Not exactly covert then??

    Not defending Apple, just point out poor, headline grabbing journalism.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not Spying

      <cynic> Article with Apple = perhaps extra clicks as Apple lovers and haters slug it out </cynic>

    2. Squander Two

      Re: Not Spying

      Not exactly "unwanted messages", either. Sure, you'd have to be a fucking moron to want the messages, and I'm sure lots of iFanatics and all of Techradar's staff will indeed willingly sign up for them.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Not Spying

      Its not clear in the article if this is the App store app that installed by default and cannot be removed.

      In which case you never download it... its there.

      But there is very clear consent here.... you need location and bluetooth on... who has blue tooth on except when you are smashing your phone against your friends screaming "copy you stupid thing... oh wait its started now.".

      1. hypercommunist

        Re: Not Spying

        App Store is preinstalled, basic part of iOS. Apple Store app is for those who want to buy Apple hardware, browse virtual Apple Store, def not required

  3. Richard Jones 1
    WTF?

    Why

    Title says it all really.

    Why would anyone want more junk messages?

    Why walk round staring at a small hunk of plastic in case you miss something on its proxy for real life screen?

    If that is all you want to life, sit in a darkened room. However, surely the point of going out is to see what the world has to offer?

    My phone sits in a darkened pocket all alone with only a link to the service provider and to a bluetooth headset for company when I am out walking. If I have to use it at all, I do not want to have to look at it as well as talk through its services.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    rotten

    Apples...

    sounds like desperation to me.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: rotten

      It is undoubtedly desperation - on the part of the editor of the Reg in a bid to maximise ad views.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Gimp

        Re: rotten

        Interesting that Apple stories on El Reg don't get any pro-Apple comments on the weekends.

        Either iDevice users don't browse the interwebs on weekends (highly unlikely)

        Or...

        A certain Cupertino, CA company is paying its 9 to 5 Monday-Friday crew to post "fan mail" on tech websites.

    2. Algingautr

      Re: rotten

      Yup. Desperation. The Register needs to pay the rent, Apple headlines are sure to get some extra ad views, maybe even clicks. Does anybody even know is iBeacons could even track if they wanted to? iBeacons are pretty passive, it's the store app that tracks the iBeacons. I suppose the store app could tell Apple which iBeacons it's been tracking, and apple could distill locations from that, but what's the point? Apple is not google and does not need to farm their users for data to sell to their customers.

  5. Tromos

    Avoidance

    I wonder how long it's going to be before we get an Android app that sounds a warning klaxon that an 'Appley' area is about to be entered.

    1. Steve Todd

      Re: Avoidance

      Feel free to write one, the spec has been openly documented and there's an article on the reg describing how to create your own beacon.

      I'm sure that Apple owners would appreciate rabid Fandroids avoiding them also.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: Avoidance

        Apple should be able to know from the hardware codes who is carrying a non-Apple mobile network device and target their sales teams appropriately. So next time someone sidles up to you and starts doing rather too obviously some very cool shit on their iDevice which *might* just tempt you to convert...

    2. Algingautr

      Re: Avoidance

      Nah. Not going to happen Androids don't have Bluetooth 4, they are stuck with the perpetually on the verge of breakthrough wunderkind NFC. They are geriatrically unable to hear iBeacons.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Avoidance

        If you have an Android device, why would you be interested in avoiding something that doesn't affect you?

  6. Khaptain Silver badge

    Emptyness is always empty

    I do not know about other Apple stores but in Geneva the store is a relatively small affair, it is a T shape.

    As you walk in there are the usual Macbooks, or whatever is A La Mode du Jour, on either side of you as you walk in. Then you arrive in the main area which has four large table upon which are spread the usual Macbooks, Ipads etc...

    On the edges there are some more shelves/tables with some Imacs and in one corner there is a stand for accessories and on the opposite end the Macbar or whatever it is called.

    In all honesty, it takes about 1.2 minutes to see the whole affair and everything just seems to be repeated/spread about everywhere.

    It always appears that there are more apple staff than there are customers. It's genueinly a very boring affair.

    I can't even begin to imagine the point of activating such a system for such a small surface. I can only presume that the Apple shops are much larger elsewhere but I can't for the life of me imagine what they stock more than the tiny Geneva shop stocks and what could possibly justify the requirement.

    1. DougS Silver badge

      Re: Emptyness is always empty

      It isn't really useful for Apple stores, except maybe a few flagship stores that are really large, the intention is that it will be used in large department stores to help you find stuff, etc.

      Likely Android, or at least some Android phones, will support Beacon at some point. It isn't proprietary Apple technology, it was invented by Paypal. Apple calls it "iBeacon", but it only requires BLE to run, and the most recent Android update supports that and probably some Android phones have the required hardware for it. It is just a matter of the software. For all I know there's already a Beacon app in the Play store.

      Not useful yet, but if/when Home Depot or Walmart uses it, it could be helpful to direct you to where the label makers are at or something like that instead of wandering around for 10 minutes then giving up, wandering another few minutes finding someone who can help and finding it is one aisle over from the first place you looked.

      1. Khaptain Silver badge

        Re: Emptyness is always empty

        Ok, that seems a bit more logical. I initially understood it aas simply being Apple studying the habits of their customers within the premises.

        >instead of wandering around for 10 minutes then giving up, wandering another few minutes finding someone who can help and finding it is one aisle over from the first place you looked.

        Agreed it really is a pain in the arse in the larger stores trying to find some specific items..

        1. DougS Silver badge

          Re: Emptyness is always empty

          They will probably use it for that purpose too. They could use different displays/demos in different stores and see how it changes things. i.e. demo A at the iPad station results in people standing near it for a certain length of time and a certain percentage of people loitering actually buying, demos B, C, and D result in different numbers. Choose the one that produces the best sell through and implement it in all their stores.

  7. NightFox

    "Apple claimed iBeacon offers "a whole new level of micro-location awareness, such as trail markers in a park, exhibits in a museum, or product displays in stores".

    What that really means is that whenever you visit somewhere armed with iBeacon transmitters, your iPhone will bombard you with unwanted messages."

    A few years ago we were constantly told that if we left Bluetooth turned on on our phones we would get constantly hit with similar advertising messages - never happened to me, not even once. Maybe it's just me and it's because it's Monday morning, but lately I'm beginning to find El Reg's unimaginative cynicism just a bit tedious and predictable. Off to get some caffeine...

    1. johnnymotel

      Simples....

      It's a slow Apple week for El Reg.....

      1. Dan 55 Silver badge
        Trollface

        Re: Simples....

        "It's a slow Apple week for El Reg....."

        No, it's just Peak Apple.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      [citation needed]

      The irony of fandroids accusing Apple of spamming and data collection is brilliant. Shall forget that you are all essentially members of the Chocolate Factory Borg? Honestly guys, the projection here is hilarious.

  8. Fihart

    Is Bluetooth the flaw ?

    Anyone au fait with iPhone's battery performance will have Bluetooth switched off.

    Of course, if you're dumb enough to download an app which enables advertising nag, you probably haven't a clue about anything so techie as a battery.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is Bluetooth the flaw ?

      I leave Bluetooth on all the time. The few times that I have turned it off suggest, to me at least, that drain on the battery with BLE is negligible.

  9. PowerSurge

    It doesn't work quite the way some comments imply. The transmitters only transmit identifying packets up to 31 bytes. You have to have an app which looks for and recognises the code and goes to fetch the real message some other way. I.e you'll have to have the relevant store app running before you see anything.

    As well as 'helping' you to find what you want in a shop it could be used e.g as a museum guide. The application which I find interesting is following you around your own house turning on/off lights and heating depending on where you are.

    I don't think it can be used to force unsolicited messages on you.

    I hope I'm right.

  10. Neill Mitchell

    For once, I really really hope...

    Apple have patented this idea so no one else can copy it.

  11. Wanda Lust

    iSpy with my little eye

    .... someone who's out to harvest page views rather than write a good story.

    If the writer would just take a little time out to read how a technology works then it'd be obvious that the punter has to opt-in to this by loading an app on the iThing.

    In effect the punter is advertising, through the app, back to Apple's cloud service, 'Hi, I'm in your store cos I've just received an iBeacon ping & tell me about anything interesting."

    So not exactly spying if the punter is fully involved.

    The beacon itself is passive, merely broadcasting an identity. Yes, more complex & capable devices can act as a beacon but retail likes cheap so they're hardly likely to go that route.

  12. Lallabalalla

    Don't care about "surveillance"

    DO care about being relentlessly spammed.

  13. Big_Boomer

    Ohhhhh,..... Eeeeehhhhhhh,...

    "You are taking a s**t in the Apple store bathroom. Would you like to buy some designer, overpriced toilet paper to wipe your butt with? Press 1 for yes, 2 for no, 3 for hell no, 4 for toilet paper with the MS logo, 5 for toilet paper with the Android logo, 6 for toilet paper with the Samsung logo, or 7 to have an Apple Store facilitator assist you with your issue."

    1. Phil E Succour
      Joke

      Re: Ohhhhh,..... Eeeeehhhhhhh,...

      Shouldn't that be:

      ...or 7 to have an Apple Store facilitator assist you with your tissue.

      Exactly what kind of assistance I'll leave to the imagination.

    2. Fihart

      Re: Ohhhhh,..... Eeeeehhhhhhh,...

      You mean Apple Stores have toilets for the public ?

      Add them to my list of emergency ports of call along with McDonalds -- except the McDonalds in Brussels in 1980-something which still had an old lady at a table trying to charge for use. Something I hadn't seen since they expelled them from the loos at Charles de Gaulle airport.

  14. geoff 9

    Ironic

    I'm trying to read this article and it's suddenly obscured by an unsolicited slide-in invitation to complete a Register site survey!

  15. The Man Himself Silver badge

    mmmmm

    I mis-read the title as iBacon, and thought that perhaps Apple had finally come up with a product that I might want to buy

    1. i like crisps

      Re: mmmmm

      Quick!...Patent, trade mark and copyright iBacon NOW!!!......too late.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    iSpam

    That is all.

  17. Trooper_ID

    great idea in a museum where you could rent an ipad and get extra info as you wander around, yes, that I get. But in a small (relatively) tech store that sells about 6 core products each with many varieties? Really? Nah.

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