A BuzzFeed News investigation reveals the quiet spread of Gimbal Inc.’s[bluetooth] phone-tracking technology in some of America’s largest cities.
The beacons are manufactured by Gimbal Inc., the San Diego company that made the 500 beacons that were removed from New York City phone booths earlier this month
Taken together, the programs reveal a broad initiative by Gimbal to quietly partner with outdoor advertising companies in major American cities.
Although beacons do not collect any information themselves, they play a central role in Gimbal’s phone-tracking technology. Gimbal requires smartphone apps that use its software to get users’ “opt-in” permission before collecting data and sending beacon-triggered notifications. When a Gimbal-enabled, customer-approved app “sees” a Gimbal beacon, the phone sends information about the encounter — including the phone’s “unique identifier”, its location, and the time of day — to Gimbal’s servers.
Gimbal’s apparent strategy — getting hundreds of its beacons placed in high-trafficked public spaces — contrasts markedly with the indoor, retail-focused applications that have dominated beacon-based marketing so far, such as telling a customer in aisle 12 that polo shirts are on sale.
Titan Outdoor Advertising initially said that the beacons it installed in NYC phone booths were only being used for testing and maintenance purposes. In several instances, however, the Gimbal beacons installed in Titan’s phone booths were used for explicitly commercial purposes.
Indeed, a large beacon network seems to be essential to the services the company has marketed to its clients. Gimbal’s “Profile” service, for example, “passively develops a profile of mobile usage and other behaviors” that allow the company to make educated guesses about a user’s demographics (“age, gender, income, ethnicity, education, presence of children”), interests (“sports, cooking, politics, technology, news, investing, etc”), and the “top 20 locations where [the] user spends time (home, work, gym, beach, etc.).” According to Gimbal, the Profile service only operates for users who explicitly “opt in” to it.