If you are a frequent reader of this blog or of technology related news feeds, it should come as no surprise that location has rapidly become one of the basic means of communicating, marketing, and crowdsourcing in our modern world. Is the data that you are inadvertently communicating through your mobile device that powers many web mapping services via crowdsourcing making our world more efficient and sustainable? Take the common example of your position moving through traffic, communicated from location information on your smartphone, calculated using the miracle of web mapping technology into speed, and combined with others to create real-time information about which routes are currently running sluggishly and which are running quickly in your metropolitan area. Most would argue that yes, this does make people’s commutes more efficient by saving time. Moreover, it saves fuel through a multiplier effect if even a fraction of the vast number of people commuting at any given time around the world adjust their behavior by avoiding traffic snarls and idling their engines.
Is that same data compromising your personal privacy? Most would probably argue that while each of us gives up a bit of location privacy for these real time traffic feeds, the resulting public benefit far outweighs the costs. An analogy from the 1990s might be the personal information that most of us shared with grocery businesses in order to obtain a ‘discount card’ from our local food store.
The “tipping point” of concern for some on the personal privacy seems to be where location services allow you, and by extension, depending on the application, anyone, to see your own personal location and movements over time. For example, examine this page describing how location reporting from an iPhone and iPad allows Google to store a history of your location devices where you are logged into your Google account and have enabled location history, or related articles about Android devices. There are ways to override this location history, but it takes just that–overriding the defaults, and–will this override be possible in the future?
I checked, and I don’t have any location history, at least in Google. But would it matter if I did? As a person who loves and works with maps on a daily basis, part of me was a little disappointed, actually, that I couldn’t see what I thought might be a fascinating set of maps showing some of my field work over the past few months, which included some brisk but pleasant walks along the lakefront in Chicago during the AAG annual meeting and a trek through a wetland in Wisconsin afterwards.
I frequently work with secondary and university students, and in my conversations with them, I’ve noticed that the younger generation generally doesn’t see a problem with sharing anything in the digital world, whether it is their location, photos, videos, links, whatever. So, is it just my generation that is a wee bit nervous about the potential harm that could result from personal data being mined? Should other generations be concerned? Our goal in this blog and in our book is to raise awareness of the power and utility of geospatial information, and also to critically assess its quality,use, and implications.
Two recent releases. one app and a new phone, highlight a couple of issues we have discussed recently – personal location information and data privacy.
The Connect web/iOS app allows users to map the location of not only the contacts in their address book but also connections in their social networks. In a TechCrunch review Sarah Perez quotes one of the co-founders Ryan Allis as saying the app aggregates data from social media rather than using GPS to track connections which he considers a bit ‘creepy’. App users request access to their social media networks and once configure, the app will display connections on a map, based on their current address, a check-in via another application such as Facebook or from a geo-tagged posts on other platforms such as Twitter. The app also provides some options for configuring how and when connect alerts will be received (for example, when a favourite contact is within a certain range from your location). I wonder if those same connections realise just who may be using their location information? When they update their location, maybe they don’t want some of their connections to know they are in town? Will the more public social media platforms, such as Twitter, also provide options for users to broadcast their location information selectively or will the default position remain by choosing to make your location available, you accept you will have little or no control over who has access to it and how they use it? Apps like Connect introduce new options for keeping track of contacts but it’s also a reminder to think carefully about posting location information online.
As for the phone, the recently launched Blackphone uses encrypted messaging and calls (both sender and receiver have to use the same device or app) to restrict access to data. Any casual snooper would see the traffic but should not be able to access the content, although the phone makers stress that the device isn’t 100% hacker proof and a determined individual or organisation would still be able to get at the data. Following on from our post on the secret lives of phones, the Blackphone also promises to provide more control over both how and what data is transmitted wirelessly (often unknown to the phone user). Hopefully such default privacy settings will soon be the norm, not the exception.
Interesting article published by the BBC on the next big frontier for the Internet – the Internet of Things. This next stage in the evolution of the Internet allows us to access and control an increasingly diverse network of devices and sensors, such as personal fitness monitors and many household items. There are applications available now for remotely controlling central heating systems, recording TV and video when we’re not at home, and keeping friends and families informed of our whereabouts. The Ford Motor Company recently announced a new initiative using their in-car connectivity system and an interface to a mobile tracking application, allowing drivers to share their location with friends and family directly from their cars using their smartphones and voice commands.
The early days of the Internet were all about people exchanging information. Now the technology has evolved to integrate many physical devices, allowing us to use the information collected by these devices to manage our lives more effectively. Almost inevitably, with many such innovations the attendant concerns of privacy and location tracking are raised. If I use my smartphone to adjust the central heating in my home to come on/switch off at certain times, and that information is stored on a network and accessed by others or my phone is stolen, that information could potentially be used by someone trying to gain access to the house when no one is in.
A couple of weeks ago the Olympic Torch was paraded through the village where I live. In eager anticipation of the event, a couple of elderly neighbours, keen to get the best vantage point, asked if I knew which route the torch would be taken along. Deciding that a map was probably the best way to show this, I cranked up my iPad and opened up a map viewer. The reaction from both neighbours on seeing their respective houses and surrounds in glorious Technicolor courtesy of some recent satellite imagery went something along the lines of …. ‘Oh look there’s my house … hey wait a minute that’s an invasion of privacy, I didn’t say they could photograph it’.
Trying my best to allay their fears about any perceived intrusion, arguing that the information was being put to many good uses, which by the way included helping us find the best place to see the torch, I couldn’t help thinking their reaction was not uncommon for their generation – immediately suspicious and wary of the implications. By contrast, younger generations are growing up today in a world where having easy access to this level of detailed location information is taken for granted. Not being able to see your house on Google Street View is simply ‘pre-historic’.
Location privacy is an issue we discuss in the book. Just what rights do individuals have now with pervasive street view imagery and video surveillance cameras on almost every street corner? In response to a number of lawsuits from disgruntled individuals and private businesses, Google have argued that “complete privacy” no longer exists in this age of satellites and high-resolution imagery, although they have made some concessions in the form face and licence plate blurring to protect unsuspecting passers-by and residents. The technology to capture, record and manipulate location information continues to develop apace; just what legislation will be required to govern the use of that information is still being debated and it is a discussion that will continue for years. It’s not the data that are the problem, it’s what some people choose to do with them that’s the issue.