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Screenshots of iBeacon on a test run.

Apple effectively put its sales force in your pocket today. If you’re in an Apple Store with the right app turned on, you could get a message saying, essentially: “Hey, I see you’re standing in front of the new iPad. Want to upgrade?  Let me see if I can get you a discount on that."  Or: "Like that accessory? If you tap the screen right here, you could just walk out of here with it right now. How about it?” 

We’ve mostly gotten used to geo-location: That's tech that lets you ask your phone, “Where’s the nearest gas station?” Of course, it also lets the government ask your phone company, “Where were you yesterday at 2 p.m.?”

This is cicro-location. The iBeacon feature in the Apple Store app uses Bluetooth to pinpoint where you are in the Apple store. Other stores, like Macy’s, say they’re going to use it too.

Attorney Jennifer Lynch monitors privacy issues with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She says iBeacon could actually be an upgrade from what we’ve seen before.

"At least for this one, the user knows that the app is downloaded onto the phone," she says. "There are other location-tracking systems that stores use, where the user has no idea."

Do we care? Kathryn Zickuhr from the Pew Research Center has done surveys. She says about a third of adults say they’ve turned off geo-location services on their phone, at least sometimes.

Yes, people get a little concerned about how much of this data companies keep. "But really, people tend to be more concerned about personal threats," she says, "like hackers."

But there’s another anxiety here: When Apple shows me a deal, is it as good as the one you’re getting? Harvard professor Ben Edelman studies online commerce and advertising.

"There’s no particular guarantee, in the long run, that we’ll have a world of posted prices," he says, "where everyone walks into the store, sees the same price on a paper label on the shelf."

We’re kind of used to price discrepancies with, say, airfares.

"In the retail context, though, you kind of feel like that can of soup on the shelf should be the same price for everyone," he says. "You don't need to worry about being the sucker who's paying the high price, the way we all worry about airfare."

About the author

Dan is a sustainability reporter for Marketplace.

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