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Apple Upgrade Tracks Customers Even When Marketing Apps Are Off

The people who design marketing apps are celebrating a change in the way iBeacon works on iPhones. That's the Bluetooth-based system that lets a store track a customer's movements, and capitalize on them. For instance, if iBeacon detects you lingering in the shoe department, it might send you a digital coupon for socks.

IBeacon has been around for a while, and marketers liked the concept in principle. Macy's, Major League Baseball and American Eagle Outfitters are just a few of the brands that have experimented with the technology. But there was a big practical problem: It only worked when a customer's phone was running the marketer's app. Once you closed the app, the tracking stopped.

That problem has now been fixed. When Apple updated the iPhone's operating system two months ago, it changed it to allow marketing apps to keep tabs on your location even when they're off. When you close an app, it "deputizes" the phone's operating system to keep listening for iBeacon signals on its behalf.

The change was heralded last month on the blog BEEKn, run by industry insider Doug Thompson. He says Apple didn't publicize the new system, but when people working on iBeacon marketing products found out about it, they were thrilled.

"It was the announcement everybody was waiting for," Thompson says. He says it eliminates the nagging problem of how to get customers to open a location-tracking app in the places where it might be useful.

"It was hard enough to get the [customers] to download the app," Thompson says. Getting them to reopen it every time they come back to a place where it's useful was just too cumbersome.

Of course, the change has others spooked.

"As a privacy researcher, I always get nervous when marketers are celebratory about something," says Garrett Cobarr, a technologist and writer based in Seattle. He says Apple seems to ignore certain assumptions that people make about what's happening on a device.

"Most users if you asked them would assume that if the app wasn't on, it wasn't being used," Cobarr says. He says finding out a closed app can still track the phone's location "would surprise most people and perhaps unnerve them."

For Apple's part, the iBeacon explainer separates the company from the third-party apps that take advantage of this technology: "If you allow third-party apps or websites to use your current location, you agree to their terms, privacy policies, and practices," Apple writes.

If iBeacon tracking unnerves you, there are still ways to turn it off. The simplest is to shut off the Bluetooth function on your phone. You could also go into settings and restrict a particular marketing app's access to location services ... or you could simply delete the app altogether.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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