A recent article on BusinessInsider reported the re-launch of Google’s location sharing feature as an update to Google Maps. Originally available as Google Latitude, the first version prompted a report highlighting the risks of inadvertently sharing personal location information. Although the location sharing options seem similar second time around, the focus seems to be on the benefits of sharing this type of information and as the article notes, although the privacy concerns haven’t away, they are a footnote rather than the headline.
What has changed in the intervening years appears to be the perceptions about sharing personal location information. Is this because consumers of such services heeded the warnings and shared with discretion so fears were unfounded, or because the risks were not as great as originally thought? Other location sharing applications, such as Glympse and Swarm, stayed the course and developed their niche products away from the spotlight that tends to focus on Google. Have these services paved the way for Google to try again? Whatever the reason, Google is confident enough of a favourable reception to re-release their location sharing technology as part of their flagship application.
A few weeks ago we wrote about autonomous cars and some of the associated location data privacy issues that this new type of transport raised. In a related article in Automotive News, the challenge of collecting and maintaining the highly accurate map data that would be required to support these vehicles and provide the locational context for the various data sources collected by in-car sensors was also discussed. As the report author commented, ‘History’s most intrepid explorers were often at the mercy of their maps. The self-driving cars of the future won’t be any different.‘
Jim Keller (Chief Engineer, Honda R&D Americas Inc.) has acknowledged that mapping is going to be critical to the success of the autonomous car and he considers the relationship between map makers and car manufacturers as both vital and symbiotic. He argues that data collected by the cars will augment the data available from more traditional sources and data available from those more traditional sources will in turn help the car manufacturers.
While this suggests a new location data collecting dynamic – crowd-sourcing meets Street View, with cars altruistically recording and sharing the data they collect – it also highlights some of the challenges ahead. These cars have the potential to provide unprecedented volumes of detailed road network data but for that data to be useful, they have to be accurate, current and consistent with the standards adopted by other map data providers to ensure integration with existing data sets, reliability and ultimately safe driving for all road users.
Location data privacy issues continue to challenge both the providers and consumers of location based services. With news last week that Audi has become the first car maker to obtain a permit from the state of California to test autonomous or self-driving cars on public roads, the prospect of so-called robot cars on the roads and highways gets ever closer. This will not only herald a new age in car usage and traffic management, but there will also be some far reaching implications for the collection and use of personal location data. The recording and archiving of navigation histories, monitoring individual driving behaviour, potential links to social media and other online accounts, and the insatiable desire from advertising companies to know as much as they can about where we are going to and what we do when we get there, exposes a minefield of location data privacy issues (What If Your Autonomous Car Keeps Routing You Past Krispy Kreme?). As one motor industry VP of marketing commented at CES earlier in the year, ‘We have GPS in your car, so we know what you’re doing”.
US government research into in-car location services has already prompted a call for location data privacy legislation. The Location Privacy Protection Act, updated and reintroduced this year, would require all companies who provide such location based services to obtain explicit permission from their customers before collecting and reusing their personal location data. If passed the bill would also require companies to publicly disclose how the location data is being used.
Should traffic management and law enforcement authorities have access to an individual’s location data while they are on the road? Would the fear of being ‘caught’ violating road and traffic regulations make us more responsible drivers and would the prospect of safer car operation and a reduction in accidents due to the extra surveillance be sufficient to persuade us to relinquish some control over our personal location data? It will be interesting to see what the response to these data privacy issues will be when self-drive cars finally hit the roads.
We recently came across the Moves App, the always-on data logger that records walking, cycling and running activities, with the option to monitor over 60 other activities that can be configured manually. By keeping track of both activity and idle time calorie burn, the app provides ‘ an automatic diary of your life’ .. and by implication, assuming location tracking is always enabled as well, an automatic log of your location throughout each day. While this highlights a number of privacy concerns we have written about in the past (including Location Privacy: Cellphones vs. GPS, and Location Data Privacy Guidelines Released), it also opens up the possibilities for some insightful, and real-time or near real-time, analytical investigations into what wearers of a particular device or users of a particular app are doing at any given time.
Gizmodo reported today on the activity chart released by Jawbone, makers of the Jawbone UP wristband tracking device, which showed a spike in activity for UP users at the time a 6.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in the Bay Area of Central California in the early hours of Sunday 24th August 2014. Analysis of the users data revealed some insight into the geographic extent of the impact of the quake, with the number of UP wearers active at the time of the quake decreasing with increasing distance from the epicentre.
Source: The Jawbone Blog
This example provides another timely illustration of just how much personal location data is being collected and how that data may be used in ways never really anticipated by the end users. However, it also shows the potential for using devices and apps like these to provide real-time monitoring of what’s going on at any given location, information that could be used to help save lives and property. As with all new innovations, there are pros and cons to consider; getting the right balance between respecting the privacy of users and reusing some of the location data will help ensure that data mining initiatives such as this will be seen as positive and beneficial and not invasive and creepy.
Just as the open government data and free public access movement continues to go from strength to strength, it seems that personal data could soon be a new currency in the digital information markets, where companies and other interested parties bid for the right to use that data for their own purposes.
Jacopo Staiano at the University of Trento in Italy recently conducted an experiment to the perceived value of personal location information. The study, reported in the MIT Technology review, involved 60 participants using smartphones that collected a variety of information including the number of calls made, applications used, the participant’s location throughout the day and the number of photographs taken. Using an auction system, the participants were given the opportunity to sell either the raw data or the data after it had been processed in some way to add value. Of all the information collected during the experiment, personal location data emerged as the most highly valued, and perhaps not surprisingly those who travelled more each day generally placed a higher value on their location data than those who didn’t.
The valuable insights into personal behaviour and preferences provided by such information are what compel the marketers to find ever pervasive ways to tap into that resource. Mobile location-aware applications and services are now commonplace and for many recording location data is the default setting; users have to proactively opt out to avoid being tracked. During the course of the experiment the participants were also asked who they trusted most when it came to managing their personal location data; the responses indicated concerns about the trustworthiness of financial institutions, telecom and insurance companies when it came to collecting and using this information.
The research suggests the emergence of ‘.…a decentralised and user-centric architecture for personal data management‘, one that gives users more control over what data is collected, how it is stored and who has access to it. The study also reports that several research groups are already starting to design and build such personal data repositories and it is increasingly likely that some type of market for personal location information will soon emerge.
Almost a year ago we posted a review on the Internet of things, an emerging global network of internet-connected devices and sensors, so with the end of 2013 fast approaching it seems like a good time to see how things have developed over the last 12 months and what 2014 and beyond has in store for us. In his article How the internet of things will replace the web Christopher Mims predicts that the internet will change beyond all current recognition, with the role of the web reduced to displaying content. Although the dominant ‘species’ of the internet of things is currently the smartphone, with the latest versions kitted out with sensors and apps for tracking and monitoring many aspects of our lives, wearable technology – smart watches, wristbands, glasses, even temporary tattoos – will become increasingly prevalent as personal sensors and the medium for controlling the connected devices around us.
Accompanying these developments in the available devices are significant improvements in the levels of accuracy in location tracking with versions of GPS technology, such as Apple’s iBeacon technology, that work indoors. With this increasing accuracy comes the emergence of ‘invisible’ or ‘spatial’ buttons, which according to Amber Case (Esri) are simply locations in space in which some response is triggered when a person or a device enters that space. For example, walking into or out of a room automatically turns the lights on/off, or turning on the security system when you leave home. Needless to say, the potential for using this type of technology as a marketing tool hasn’t been missed. British Airways has already launched a new campaign called ‘Look Up‘ with an interactive billboard in London informing passers-by what aircraft is passing overhead and current deals on that particular route.
Along with the changing role of the web, Mims also discusses the emergence of what some refer to as anticipatory computing, as the internet develops from simply responding to requests to anticipating those requests based on past location, actions and preferences. As with most technical innovations, there will be both benefits and costs; the benefits should mean we have much more control over the resources we use, the cost will be having to make a lot of our personal information available to make this happen.