Land Rover spams my phone in Times Square

I was in Times Square this weekend, and wandered by a giant Land Rover billboard.

The billboard said "Make your Bluetooth handset discoverable and get the whole story now?" The statement was vague but intriguing, which I guess was its intent, and so I pulled out my Treo. And discovered that it was already in the process of downloading something from Land Rover, which was apparently using some sort of Bluetooth broadcasting technology to bombard everyone in the environs.

Land Rover was able to start transferring data to my phone without my explicit permission because I'd left it on the "Discoverable" setting, meaning that other nearby Bluetooth devices were able to detect its presence. I guess I'd been lulled into not looking at this as a security issue because hookups of two Bluetooth devices normally require a pairing process that requires human intervention, even though I know of the hackish prank known as Bluejacking. But it hadn't dawned on me that a discoverable phone could be discovered by an advertising broadcast.

Anyhow, once the Land Rover download had completed, my Treo asked me if I wanted to accept it. I did, and found it was a tiny video with dim audio--which, especially in Times Square, was too puny to make much of an impression.

But the experience did leave me annoyed...and philosophical. Is there any circumstance under which it's kosher for a legit company (Land Rover is, by the way, part of Ford) to transfer video onto the phones of people who happen to wander by its billboard? Does the fact that you have to accept the video once it's downloaded--at least on my phone--make this OK? If you leave your phone set to be discoverable, are you basically asking for it? Did whoever came up with Bluetooth's discoverable setting design it to be used in this way? Could a malicious person use the same techniques that Land Rover did to mess up phones?

If I'd managed not to see the Land Rover billboard--a perfectly plausible possibility--I would have been confronted by my Treo's message later, whenever I next used my phone. Given that the message on the Treo didn't make clear that it was an ad, or that it involved video, I'd probably have been utterly mystified, and maybe worried that I'd been hacked. Seems to me that that in itself is reason enough to make this a bad idea.

Land Rover, it seems to me, could have avoided irritating any prospective customers by doing its phone advertising via some system that involved interested passers-by sending an SMS message and receiving an ad in return.

Before anybody brings it up: Yup, the ads on PCWorld.com can be annoying, too. But you see them when you've chosen to visit our site--and with this Land Rover ad, all I'd chosen to do was to be in the proximity of a billboard with my phone on a particular setting.

Your thoughts?

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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