Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bluetooth Blues

Bluetooth technology went a long way over the course of its short lifespan. This geezer remembers the days it was a pain to set up and endure the repetitive pairings one had to go through. I also remember having to deal with external dongles and equipment that, despite all the good intentions, couldn't hold dialog with one another.
Things are different today. I use Bluetooth all the time, literally, for things such as:
  • My smartwatch talking to my smartphone,
  • My car’s hands free and music,
  • The portable Bluetooth speaker that lets me listen to decent quality music wherever I am without the need for headphones,
  • And the Bluetooth keyboard I pack my iPad in, which turns the iPad into a very effective work tool.
With this constant use of Bluetooth comes a new risk: tracking.
You might have heard about it before in the context of wifi tracking: you walk around with your smartphone’s wifi on, and as you go your way hidden wifi trackers talk to your smartphone and gather its unique wifi identifiers as well as the list of wifi networks it normally uses. The latter allows them to know where you live/work, because companies such as Google have already mapped everyone’s wifi networks; the first allows it to easily match you with previous observations so as to keep track of your location over time.
Well, the same story pretty much applies to Bluetooth. Whenever I walk about (or, for that matter, drive) with my Bluetooth devices on, I am exposed to trackers that are able to uniquely identify me and thus build a picture of me and my habits. Things are so bad that the city of New York, for example, started banning such trackers; but what about all the rest of them?
Thing is, there used to be a way around this tracking. Once upon a time, one could set their Bluetooth connection to be on while switching device settings so as not to be discoverable (note this in the above image). You could use your devices, but you can’t be tracked. Nice! But did you notice these settings are not available anymore?
In case you wonder why these settings managed to disappear, here’s the answer. The short, one word answer is: money. The longer one is that companies, companies of the likes of Apple, make a lot of money through selling products such as iBeacons to track and “guide” people around. Primarily to do so at shops, so as to allow you to spend more money. In order for Apple’s product to successfully work, Apple needs your Bluetooth device to be on and to be discoverable; lucky for Apple, it has a lot of control over whether these settings are available to users in the first place. Google, the world's largest advertising company, isn't any better.
I will therefore repeat the conclusion from a previous post: Companies such as Apple may send their overpaid CEOs to announce their commitment to privacy and how much they care for their customers, but the reality is the exact opposite. These companies are more than happy to take an active part in destroying our privacy for the sake of a dollar. Their records speak for themselves.

Image by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

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