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Finding You: How Should Geolocation Be Used?

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With Geolocation, what is possible depends on who has what data, and how well they use it to connect the dots. What is right is harder to say.

I had a morning free in Hong Kong recently. I know a few people in that city, but I had no easy way of getting in touch with them, so I took a long walk instead.

If my phone were enabled with a global positioning system (GPS) and I had the right Facebook software installed, I could have figured out whether I had any friends in the neighborhood. I might have instant-messaged my pals, suggesting that we meet—right then. If we had set things up ahead of time, our phones would be reporting our locations to Facebook, and the computer would search for friends near me.

This is a fairly simple software concoction of social networking and geolocation. A GPS-enabled phone can be located to within a few feet. These devices communicate with a network of 24 satellites deployed originally for military purposes but later released for civilian use—the same satellites used by the navigation systems in automobiles. Ordinary cell phones can be geolocated less accurately. Your cell phone sends an identifying "ping," a signal to nearby cell phone towers telling your cellular service where to route your incoming calls. The strength of the signals reaching the towers can be used to locate the phone.

Combining the location and social network information about millions of people yields a variety of interesting utilities. Perhaps you want your list of nearby friends ordered by proximity, but why not by gender? That's an option. Another option is to introduce you to hometown neighbors (whether or not they're your Facebook "friends") who happen to be near you, wherever you happen to be. Another option is to "fake your location," a feature for which no particular purpose is suggested.

British shopping malls use geolocation data from cell phones in a creatively different way. Special antennas pick up cell phone pings so the mall can take a regular census of how many people are in which stores. The denser antenna mesh enables accurate geolocation even for conventional phones. You'd have to leave your phone at home, or turn it off, to be omitted from the census.

Malls say that they're interested in this aggregate data because it enables them to serve their customers better. If the stores are full at the 10 p.m. closing time, for example, perhaps the mall should stay open later. As reported in the Times (London) Online, the system can't tie the data to phone records or other personally identifiable information. But it can tell one phone from another, so it could tell if a shopper at the Gap later wound up at Banana Republic. That kind of information would be useful for laying out the locations of stores.

With a little electronic sleuthing, the malls' geolocation data could be used to identify individuals by correlating it with credit card and cash register data. The phone that went from the Gap at 10:15 to Banana Republic at 10:50 perhaps belongs to the person who made purchases in those stores at those times. If the person with that phone first spent an hour at Neiman Marcus without buying anything, management of that luxury-goods store might decide not to treat her quite so nicely on her next visit.

What is possible depends on who has what data, and how well they use it to connect the dots. What is right is harder to say. Few laws and even fewer generally accepted ethical standards limit the use of geolocation data, even though many people now carry a geolocation device—that is, a cell phone.

Cultural standards change very rapidly when intrusive technologies have a bright side. A few years ago, any talk of tracking the movements of law-abiding citizens would have sparked outrage. But with OnStar helping lost motorists and Facebook helping friends meet at Starbucks, tracking by the government seems less threatening. If the police were the only ones who could do it, it would be awful—but since we all can do it, it doesn't seem so bad.

As reported in the New York Times, the Dallas, Texas school system is experimenting with the use of GPS devices to track truants. Some students don't seem to mind and are behaving better. In one case, a truant was saved from a suicide attempt when he was located after skipping school. A spokesman for Novatracker, the company that makes the truant-tracking system, puts the moral dilemma well: "You can paint this thing as either Big Brother, or this is a device that connects you to a buddy who wants to keep you safe and help you graduate."

Location tracking is largely uncharted territory on the moral spectrum between fun and totalitarianism. We don't quite know how to think about it, but the more we use it, the better we like it.

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