Analyst Corner

Apple’s gift to retail, threat to privacy

If you have updated your iPhone or iPad you might not have realized this change to the way the Control Center handles WI-FI and Bluetooth settings.  In previous OS releases, when you turned off these settings in the Control Center, it actually turned off the radios.

But the change in iOS 11 all it does is disconnect from the current network and leaves the radios on, draining your battery.  Apple claims this is for your benefit…

“In iOS 11 and later, when you toggle the Wi-Fi or Bluetooth buttons in Control Center, your device will immediately disconnect from Wi-Fi and Bluetooth accessories. Both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will continue to be available, so you can use these important features:

  • AirDrop
  • AirPlay
  • Apple Pencil
  • Apple Watch
  • Continuity features, like Handoff and Instant Hotspot
  • Instant Hotspot
  • Location Services

Essentially what they have done is left on functions that very few customers use all day every day, but in so doing give false belief to the vast majority of their customers that they actually turned off their WI-FI and Bluetooth to save battery life…but they haven’t.  Thus, both battery life and privacy suffers.

Further, where this really comes into play as a benefit for retailers is that customers who might otherwise turn off these functions before coming into retail stores will not do so.  For those who would previously have turned off Bluetooth and WI-FI when coming into a mall or store (to save battery or not wish to be tracked), probably 80-90% will not now.  And thus 95% or more of consumers with iPhones entering a store will have both radios on.

This is a boon to retailers in a variety of ways.  Yes, we know you can interrogate a phone and the MAC address for WI-FI even if it is not on, but it is easier to do so when it is on and searching.  It is also easier to match that MAC address with a loyalty profile and what someone has been searching online. Thus, despite laws that limit tracking the market basket in a store without an opt-in, we know such laws do not exist when it comes to our online searches.  (Just check your Facebook feed or news site after visiting eBags).  The opt-in only limits matching what you buy in store, not what you look at online.

Retailers have now been given the gift of increased information on customers at the expense of customer privacy.  Thus, the benefit of tipping off your sales associate that Lee just came in and he has been looking at $800 camera lenses at your online store…and here is his order history.  That becomes very valuable information in a sales associate’s hands.  So Apple has sort of unwittingly helped increase tracking of their users by retailers as well as law enforcement.

But good that Airdrop and AirPlay still works.  I use those so often when I don’t have WI-FI or Bluetooth on.