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NYC orders advertising firm's beacons be removed from pay phones

A Titan phonebooth in Herald Square.

A Titan phonebooth in Herald Square. Photo Credit: Jane Gayduk

The city ordered a tech advertising firm to remove smartphone beacons from 500 Manhattan pay phone kiosks Monday after concerns arose over a possible privacy invasion.

Titan, which has been testing a system that collects data on users' location history from phone apps for a nearly a year, however contends that the privacy of New Yorkers was never violated.

The order by the mayor's office came following a BuzzFeed article that claimed the "pinging" transmitter beacons tracked smartphone users and pushed tailored advertising to their devices.

"While the beacons Titan installed in some of its phone [booths] for testing purposes are incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information, we have asked Titan to remove them from their phones," Phil Walzak, Mayor Bill de Blasio's spokesman said in a statement.

The city's Department of Information Technology (DoITT) made an arrangement with Titan last year to test the beacon services and allowed them to install the devices in pay phones around that time, according to the agency.

Smartphone users who have Bluetooth turned on would only send their location information from apps that supported Gimbal, the third party company that created and powered the beacons that are built into the booths, if the user gave the app permission to share location.

Gimbal, which has partnerships with Major League Baseball, the NBA and New Jersey Transit, specializes in location-based analytics for advertisers.

In a statement, Titan said the beacons only picked up GPS location information, including their most frequented places, from the user, not their name or other information, and aggregated the data for research. The company is cooperating with the city's order but maintained the goal of their testing phase was to see how well the devices operated in an urban setting and explore its possibilities.

"There are many potential beneficial safety, communication and way-finding use cases for municipalities using beacons, as well as some potential commercial use cases," Titan said in the statement.

DoITT is reviewing applications for a program that would retrofit pay phones in all boroughs into Wi-Fi hot spots. A spokesman for the agency said hasn't decided if the beacons will be included in the final plans for the updated kiosks.

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