Now, when you’re waiting at New York’s JFK airport, you’ll know exactly how long the agony will last. Earlier this month, the airport installed a network of beacons in Terminal 4 to monitor line movement in real time—by tracking travelers’ smartphones.
The technology, created by Danish tech firm BLIP Systems, detects mobile devices in “discoverable” mode (that is, with Bluetooth or Wi-Fi on), then follows them through security and customs by identify and re-identifying their unique MAC addresses. By triangulating the data on smartphone locations, the BlipTrack system gets a bird’s-eye view of travel times, dwell times, and movement patterns through the airport. The new, improved wait times are displayed on 13 screens throughout the terminal, home to swanky airlines such as JetBlue and Virgin America.
The tracking devices don’t just help antsy travelers keep it together—they can also help staff intervene to troubleshoot problems. BLIP stated in a press release that tracking makes the line more responsive, alerting airport staff to bottlenecks “before they escalate.” JFK is the first airport in New York to use the technology, but it’s already available in a number of international hubs, including Toronto, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Dubai.
The company insists that the data is fully anonymized and no personal information is recorded or stored. And while the thought of Big Brother tracking your every move sounds invasive, it’s not much creepier than what airports have already been doing to calculate wait times: carefully watching people on security cameras. A Denver International Airport representative told the Denver Post: “The TSA will watch individuals as they go through the line, look at just one person and track them to see how long it takes them to get all the way to the magnetometer.” Whether humans are watching you on closed-circuit TV or beacons are following your smartphone, someone knows where you are in the airport at all times.
Still, the system counts on people to be as lazy about data security as possible; the more data collected, the more accurate wait times will be in the aggregate. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are notoriously insecure. If you really want to play it safe—and stick it to the panopticon—just turn off your phone or put it in airplane mode.