Somewhat hidden behind all the headlines about Facebook’s farcical IPO, another Facebook story grabbed my attention last week.
“Facebook Camera app really, really wants to know your location” ran the headline in CNET’s story about the latest in a long line of geo-location data stories. The essence of the story is pretty simple: the new camera app for Facebook only works properly if your location services are turned on. There are ‘work-arounds’, but for the vast majority of users it seems pretty certain that the result will be that they will simply leave location services on.
It feels like part of a trend: many of the big players in the internet world want to have location services turned on all the time – and they’re building their services and systems accordingly. It may be something that’s inevitable, and (like so many other privacy invasive technologies) we just need to accept it and move on – as Scott McNealy said, so long ago, ‘you have zero privacy, get over it’. I hope not – because there’s something qualitatively different about geo-location data from most of what we regularly give up.
It’s pretty cool stuff a lot of the time . I love the little ‘next train home’ button on the app I use for my travel – all I do is click and it finds the nearest station, checks the timetable and tells me everything I need to know. Almost everyone with a smartphone must use the mapping system pretty regularly too – it’s been a godsend for me more than once. Even so, there’s a lot more to it than there might seem – and useful to a lot of people other than you. Potential advertisers love the idea of being able to grab customers in real time, customers who might be in the neighbourhood of their restaurants and bars and so forth.
Sounds good so far? Well, yes…. but there is a lot more to it than that. There are some key factors that make it very different from the rest of the data we give up.
1) It is qualitatively different from almost everything else in that it provides a direct link with the ‘real’ world in real time. The link between your online and offline activities, identity and so forth can be directly made using location data. For most people, most of the time, this may not make any difference – but sometimes it can be devastating. I’ve blogged before about the problems related to this in Mexico – where bloggers have been tracked down and killed by the drugs cartels. I’m not suggesting that they necessarily used geo-location data to find those bloggers – but geolocation could provide exactly the kind of tools to help them to do so.
2) Geolocation data not only tells people where you are, but where you aren’t… anyone who works in internet privacy will know about the pleaserobme.com story, where a Dutch website gathered publicly available data about people and published information saying ‘this person is on holiday right now, and this is their address – you can rob them now’… but that’s just the start. You can find out when people aren’t at work, or at school, or at the meeting they said they were at. Now you might argue that’s fine – it’s a good way to catch ‘cheats’ of all kinds – but is that really true? The opportunities for misuse are huge – particularly the use of information out of context – and in the hands of the wrong people, it could be a stalker’s paradise…
3) It’s not just about the individual data at a particular moment – indeed, that’s only a small part of the story. Geolocation data, particularly when made a default, is about building up data – building up patterns of behaviour. If you know that someone always goes to location A at a particular time, or always goes to location C after they’ve visited location B, you have an even better way to track and follow them. What’s more, if you know that 85% of people who visit location D between 10 and 11 am then go on to visit location E, you can make all kinds of predictions. The possibilities are more or less endless… particularly when you aggregate the geolocation data with other information: credit card use, transport card use etc – or profiles of any kind. Different patterns for different ages, social classes etc… and, of course, the more people that use geolocation, particularly by default, the more accurate this pattern analysis becomes.
4) It’s not just the ‘good’ people who can use geo-location data – as I’ve banged on many times before, if you build something for the ‘good guys’ to use, the ‘bad guys’ will use it too. And if the ‘neutral guys’ like commercial services, like Facebook and Google themselves’ have the data then governments can subpoena it, criminals can hack it, commercial rivals/collaborators can buy it or blag it etc etc…
5) Geolocation data is crucial for some of our most important liberties – free association and assembly most directly. Any government or other authority wanting to ‘control’ a protest movement would just love to have this kind of information – and are doubtless rubbing their hands with glee at the rapid take up of location-based services.
This is just the start – and as the technology develops there will doubtless be more. The next generations of geolocation technologies will be far more accurate – some with an accuracy measured in centimetres have already been tested. They’re already in smartphones and tablets – and we can expect it to be built into more and more technology. I’d be surprised if the majority of cameras didn’t have some kind of geolocation system build in over the next few years, for example.
So what should we do about it? Well, the first thing is to start thinking about it a bit more. I see far too many people on my timeline on twitter posting something or other from FourSquare about being in Costa in Edinburgh – why? Who wants to know? Did you think before you post? A lot of internet data gathering is built around the assumption that people want to ‘boast’ – they use people’s ‘natural’ inclinations in order to get them to give away data. This is just the new style….
We need to be more careful with our technology – let’s fight against the assumptions lie behind all of this. Let’s not let location become the default – and let’s not build technology that allows ANYONE to override our decisions not to reveal our location. If I turn the location system on my phone off, I want it to stay off! I don’t want the authorities to be able to override that ‘off’ switch – and we shouldn’t be persuaded by those who would like to let parents override their kids’ settings, employers override their employees’ settings etc etc etc. Designing technology that way is just asking for abuse. And geolocation data, perhaps more than any other data, is ripe for abuse.