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New York orders firm to remove secret ad beacons from city’s phone booths

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Following the revelation at the start of the week that New York City officials last year gave the nod to an ad firm to install thousands of beacon transmitters in public phone booths, the city has now done an about-face and ordered for them to be removed.

The beacon technology, which can be used to push ads and special offers to smartphones passing close by, has been in the news a lot recently as companies such as Apple and Macy’s begin making use of it at their stores.

Ad firm Titan, which sells advertising space for more than 5,000 phone booths around the city, has already fitted the beacons in around 500 booths.

As well as pushing information to receptive apps on smartphones, the technology, which operates via Bluetooth, also has the potential to track the movement of a device across a network of beacons. Although Titan had permission to go ahead with the project, the deal was done without any public consultation or approval, a fact not lost on local civil liberties groups.

“To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency [is] of even greater concern,” Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union told the Daily News on Monday. “This is an agreement that has to be suspended pending an open process about what’s going on.”

According to BuzzFeed, both Titan and the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications said the beacons are currently being used for testing purposes in an effort to learn more about the effectiveness of beacon technology, though the precise details of what kind of tests are being carried out are unclear. They’re also being used for “inventory management” to notify Titan about which ad panels need replacing, the firm said.

Phil Walzak of the mayor’s office sought to reassure residents concerned about the beacons, saying in a statement put out Monday that they’re “incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information.”

In an apparent acknowledgement of its lack of transparency regarding the beacons’ installation, Walzak said they’d all be removed “over the coming days.”

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