John Mahoney

Last June, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software, sneaked something big into his Worldwide Developers Conference keynote. On a slide listing features that would debut in iOS 7, an unfamiliar word appeared: iBeacons. An iBeacon is a small module that makes a spontaneous Bluetooth connection with a nearby smartphone to deliver packets of information. In December, stores, arenas, and other venues began to test the hardware, pushing coupons and other location-based information to customers. Like any technology, iBeacon is not inherently good or bad; it’s how we use it that will make the difference.

To understand iBeacon, it’s important to understand the underlying technology, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Unlike previous Bluetooth devices, BLE ones don’t need to maintain a constant (and battery-draining) connection in order to share data. Instead they ping packets of information from their stationary locations. Only when another device comes into range will the two make a connection and share data. Manufacturers of health and fitness trackers have already put BLE to good use, creating devices that can gather data for days without a recharge. iBeacon makes it even easier to implement such exchanges, but not every company has our best interests as much at heart.

Pling! Your phone lights up: “Making tuna salad? Don’t forget the mayo! 20 percent off MegaMart brand.”

iBeacon will allow companies to mine and use data about you in real time. With multiple iBeacons in place, stores can pinpoint your precise location, allowing them to monitor your browsing habits and promote products you’re likely to buy. We’re used to Amazon doing this, but soon your local MegaMart will be able to also. Say, for instance, you pick up tuna fish and then some celery. Pling! Your phone lights up: “Making tuna salad? Don’t forget the mayo! 20 percent off MegaMart brand.” While we’re curious about this new era of extreme couponing, it’s easy to see how stores might misuse it.

That said, there are some helpful uses for location-specific information. Major League Baseball parks, including Citi Field in New York, will use iBeacons to guide you to your seats. (Citi will also use the system to sell you discounted hot dogs.) Radius Networks, a Washington, D.C., company, has released an iBeacon development kit, which individuals can use to build their own apps. Museums are talking about using the technology to push information about artwork to visitors as they move through galleries. And there’s potential for fun: Companies have used iBeacon to set up large digital scavenger hunts, and developers are cooking up games that could allow for spontaneous pickup matches that bridge the real and virtual worlds.

The trouble is, iBeacon is an all-or-nothing scenario. The only surefire way to turn it off is to turn Bluetooth off altogether—also shutting down the connection to your headset or fitness tracker or smartwatch. But that’s not realistic; we’re attached to Bluetooth. Which means it’s up to individual developers and companies to make the right choices and treat us, our privacy, and our attention with a little respect.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Popular Science.