Is Apple stealthily turning on your phone's Bluetooth?

A number of iPhone users have noticed the setting automatically switched on after an iOS update -- an important, if sneaky, push to increase use of the company's iBeacon technology.

By Forbes Digital Mar 13, 2014 1:31PM
Apple iPhone 5SBy Kashmir Hill, Forbes Staff

The last few times iPhone users updated their operating systems per Apple (AAPL) prompting, they may have noticed something weird. Those of us who keep Bluetooth turned off for battery and privacy or security reasons suddenly had Bluetooth turned on by default after the update.

Forbes on MSN MoneyThere are scattered complaints about it in the Apple support forum. "It's new to iOS7," is the standard response from other users. Apple did not respond to emailed inquiries about the change to users' settings. (Siri wasn't very helpful either.)

Greg Sterling, a senior analyst for Opus Research who organizes a conference about location marketing, had no knowledge of Apple turning Bluetooth on by default, but was impressed if it's true. "It's a critical piece here," he says. "Without Bluetooth, iBeacons won't work."

A plausible reason why Apple may be turning on Bluetooth is to bolster the use of iBeacon, a new technology from the smartphone giant that turns your phone into a homing beacon, helping retailers sense and communicate with phone-toting consumers in their vicinity.

A person working in the geo-marketing space grew very excited when I called to ask about the implications of Apple turning Bluetooth on by default. "That’s a huge deal," he said. "The 7.1 iOS makes a big push in what iBeacon can do, but Bluetooth has to be turned on."

iBeacons communicate via low-energy Bluetooth to awaken apps so that they can send messages or coupons to a person's phone, or send information about the person via the app. There’s a nice explainer via beacon-maker Estimote on the uses here, which notes at the end that business owners get better quantitative location data about customers.

"It's interesting to see how iBeacons are becoming a much more significant part of the Apple experience. The most recent iOS update extends the ability of an app to get location even if the app is not open," says Jules Polonetsky of the Future of Privacy Forum. Polonetsky notes that Apple has emphasized that the new Bluetooth is lower-powered so that it's less of a drain on the battery.

"iBeacon now works when the app is closed," said a celebratory headline from one trade blog. A person in the industry said it just works better with Apple's recent updates, so that an iBeacon communicates with a person's smartphone instantly rather than with a delay of several minutes -- minutes that are crucial in real-time marketing, as the target could then be blocks past the American Eagle (AEO) store that wanted to send her a deal.

What would be Apple's motivation in forcing iBeacon on users by turning their Bluetooth on?

iBeacon is one of many technologies that retailers can use to track consumers in stores, or airports, or fill-in-location-of-your-choice, says Opus Research’s Sterling. There's also acoustic or sonic tracking technologies, LED lighting, magnetic energy, Wi-Fi, cameras . . . "Public WiFi is the most widely deployed technology but it's less accurate in tracking exactly where the person is," says Sterling. "iBeacon has emerged as a supplemental or alternate technology to provide better accuracy. It’s got the buzz and early lead among these other technologies."

He says one of the advantages is how cheap iBeacons are and how easy they are to stick up on the walls. "It doesn’t require much IT knowledge," he says. The technical part is configuring the beacons to work with your particular app.

"There's a lot of excitement and a lot of momentum around building location sensing technologies out," says Sterling. "The superficial angle is that retailers want lots of data about consumers, as if retailers are the NSA. The deeper reasoning is that retailers want to provide better experiences to customers, new tools for finding things in stores and helping them get more information about products.The challenge is to not screw it up by being too aggressive or too ham-handed in your implementation. You have to be respectful of privacy and permissions."

What Sterling finds interesting is who is going to profit from this. It's the real-world equivalent of Google selling ads based on what people are searching for online. If you're in the appliance section of a Best Buy (BBY) store with your smartphone, GE (GE), LG and Samsung might all want to compete to target you with ads, says Sterling. "Who's going to get to charge for that access to the consumers?" he asks.

As to why Apple might want to get iPhone users to keep their Bluetooth turned on, Sterling says it could help Apple become dominant in the real-time location marketing space.

"This extends their whole ecosystem. If iBeacon becomes dominant or standard, it expands their reach and reinforces Apple and iOS usage," says Sterling. "There's also the idea that they may get into payments, which we’re seeing with Passbook. With their hundreds of millions of users, and iTunes having credit cards, they could turn all that on, and iBeacon could be used for payment in stores rather than swiping credit cards. I don't think there's necessarily a massive plan or conspiracy, but I do think they have a number of ideas about how the technology could be used and they see advantages in getting the technology out there and people using it."

In the meanwhile, if you don't like all this, make sure to turn off Bluetooth after you update your phone. And you should update your iPhone's software if you haven’t recently, as there was a major security problem that recently got fixed.

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Mar 13, 2014 4:22PM
My GF noticed a few months ago after leaving WalMart that her bluetooth was turned on. She is NOT tech savvy or uses neither bluetooth or wifi for anything as she has none of those kinds of devices. She uses her phone as a phone, to text & surfs some web only using the 4G (never wifi) on a Verizon phone. She immediately noticed the bluetooth on & asked me about it. She watched it closely the next couple times she entered a WalMart & each time noticed that bluetooth got turned on w/o her doing it & turned it off. Moments later it turned itself back on all by itself. Shortly before this happening I had noticed an article talking about how WalMart was testing tracking of customers in their stores watching what isles you walked down to track your shopping patterns of product interests. The only solution she could find was to leave the phone out in the vehicle or to power it off & remove the battery. Nothing was posted at the doors about WalMart doing this. It's wrong in my opinion to turn things "ON" on someones device & track them w/o notifying them you are doing such.
Mar 13, 2014 4:38PM

>>>The deeper reasoning is that retailers want to provide better experiences to customers, new tools for finding things in stores and helping them get more information about products<<<


Uhhh, no. The reason is to make more money! Period!!

Mar 13, 2014 4:49PM
I don't want my Bluetooth on, and I certainly don't want iBeacon/BT turned on by Apple without my consent or knowledge.

What TF is going on in this country?

Phones gone.
Mar 13, 2014 5:49PM
This is what people get when they put all their eggs in one basket. Remember, its so kewl to have the iphone, I mean, how could you possibly go out into the real world w/o an iphone..right? Well, Apple knows how to make money and how to "use" you all to make it. Partner with retailers, turn on so called features w/o your knowledge, and voila, your a walkin' talkin' ibeacon of information. Maybe, just maybe, all iphone uses should demand to "be paid" for the ibeacon to be used (after all, someone else is profiting from the device your so "overpay" for. Comes down to choice. It would be one thing to if you were told this was happening, but to be backdoored? Not so kewl after all, huh?
Mar 13, 2014 5:57PM
First we get Scroogled, now we get's called ethics, and no, no big business shows any sign of using them anymore.....
Mar 13, 2014 5:54PM
that's why I keep my dumb phone. yes I have a flip phone.
Mar 13, 2014 9:27PM
Laws need to be passed so that corporations are held accountable for this kind of behavior.  Same goes for the NSA and government officials.  I would really like to see these people in jail, or some trade-off where the government takes a portion of these people's money for a period of time until a fine or damages are paid-off with interest.
Mar 18, 2014 2:59PM
While reading this article I checked Bluetooth (which is always off) and found it on. They need to start sending people to prison
Mar 13, 2014 7:57PM
Gee NSA just wants to know you're all warm and safe and fuzzy. It's really not an evasion of privacy.
Mar 31, 2014 2:18PM
This stuff will continue to happen until people finally get fed up, when will that be?
Apr 3, 2014 1:38PM
Makes you wonder who's phone is it really  Kill your dumb phone!
Mar 13, 2014 4:10PM
geez, it's so hard to slide the switch to off. i review my settings after any update because i would assume they always go back to default mode as any smart person would
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