Big (Advertising) Brother is going to have to be more stealth: Secret tracking devices placed in hundreds of Manhattan phone booths are going to be removed, after an article exposing their existence was published.

According to Buzzfeed, the outdoor media company Titan installed "'beacons' — devices that can be used to track people’s movements — in hundreds of pay phone booths in Manhattan,... And it’s all with the blessing of a city agency — but without any public notice, consultation, or approval."

New York City residents had no say in the deployment of Titan’s beacons. Titan notified DoITT of its plans to install the beacons in 2013, which the city agreed to without a formal approval process because, according to [Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Nicholas] Sbordone, the company said it was using the devices for maintenance purposes only. Titan installed the beacons from September to November 2013; a source with knowledge of the situation alerted BuzzFeed News to the program anonymously for fear, the source said, of being fired for speaking publicly...

The beacons are manufactured and sold by Gimbal, a San Diego company that spun off in April from Qualcomm, the telecommunications giant. In its current iteration, a Gimbal beacon requires a third-party app to trigger advertisements, and requires those apps to receive “opt-in” permission from users in order to collect data and send notifications. (Users, of course, also need to have Bluetooth enabled.) Major League Baseball and GameStop, among others, already use Gimbal beacons in their stadiums and stores (respectively). Each uses its own proprietary app (though not necessarily integrated with Gimbal’s software). A beacon in a New York City phone booth ad would need to recognize a corresponding app to push beacon-linked content to that phone.

Buzzfeed mapped out some phone booths that Gimbal wired by using an Android app. NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman was disgusted, saying, "To the extent that the city is involved in this, the lack of transparency [is] of even greater concern."

Now, Mayor de Blasio's office says that Titan has been asked to remove the beacons over the "coming days." Spokesman Phil Walzak said, "Titan has been an important City partner in helping expand communications options for New Yorkers, from piloting free public WiFi to providing free calling on all its pay phones across the five boroughs for three weeks after Hurricane Sandy. While the beacons Titan installed in some of its phone[s] for testing purposes are incapable of receiving or collecting any personally identifiable information, we have asked Titan to remove them from their phones."

In a 2012 letter (PDF) responding to the DoITT's RFI about the future of payphones, Titan executive management said, "The City of New York has the opportunity to create a groundbreaking and innovative program that (i) can continue to generate significant revenue through the sale of advertising; (ii) provide useful communication amenities to pedestrians; and (iii) avail the City of an entirely new way to communicate with its citizens."

While disturbing, many companies are rushing to become "top of mind" when you're walking around; last year, a British startup's rolled out an effort to track people and then blast customized-ads on recycling bins.