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Tracking Your Mobile—Something to Fear or the Next Frontier?

Mobile Only: Week 48

Benjamin Robbins, an EMF member, is spending the next year working solely from a single mobile device. Each week he shares his thoughts and experience with us on what it means to be mobile-only.

The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on Friday issued a wide-ranging, but non-binding, set of new guidelines for mobile manufacturers and app developers. Spurred by the recent privacy debacles of the iOS app Path and other privacy fumbles, the FTC distributed a report that suggests mobile companies take such steps as obtaining users’ consent to collect and share location data, have a readily accessible privacy policy, and offer a “Do Not Track” option.

Location information is in itself a potential breach of privacy for the individual and a goldmine for those looking to exploit it. Individual data, such as library records, have been private in the US for decades. The reason for this is to allow individuals “the right to open inquiry without having the subject of one’s interest examined or scrutinized by others.” Until recently you would have been able to assemble an interesting profile of an individual based on their library records.

The potential abuse of the data from a single source pales in comparison to the dissemination of information across multiple organizations and data sources. The more individual data you can correlate, the more complete a profile of an individual you can piece together. This is where entities with nefarious intentions could prove problematic—nay, destructive.

Imagine if, in the very near future, organizations could combine your Google searches, mobile payment data, GPS data, Twitter updates, Vine posts, Instagram pictures, and your Foursquare check-ins. They would quite easily have the who, what, when, where, how much, and, with a little extrapolation, the why. They’d be able to top it all off with a picture of you at the moment of the event. This makes disclosing your library records seem like you only ever checked out children’s stories.

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you there should be only one immediate, unequivocal response: shut it down, shut it all down now. But this issue is not just a simple privacy breach. It’s not going to go away anytime soon and here’s why. There is way too much potential upside for all involved to kill it off. It’s already providing contextual experiences that bring conveniences people love.

Here is just one example. A few days after I upgraded to the Galaxy Note II, I started getting notifications from Google right around 4:30 p.m., informing me that it was so many minutes to “unknown location.” After a few weeks it stopped saying “unknown location” and started saying “home.” I never once entered my home or work address. So how did Google know where my home was? It collected location data and inferred where my house was based on the fact that this is where the phone spent twelve hours every day between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. Creepy? A little. Convenient? You bet. This is just the beginning of what’s possible.

From a user perspective, there are some real innovative contextual experiences that could evolve from integration of geolocation data into the app/platform experience. From automatically recording your location while entering a note into Evernote, to telling you when to leave your office to make your appointment, to where the cheapest gas is located based on your current location. The conveniences are almost endless based on where you are and what you often do.

From the company perspective, apps can not only correlate location with upsell and promotional opportunities (think walking by a Starbucks and being offered a discount to purchase a latte right now), but also gaining insight into app performance and usage. Aggregated data of user behavior gives a picture of where an app was used: at a restaurant, at an ATM, on the bus, etc. This allows for further refinement and an improved experience.

Today many people click through notices, warnings, and errors on their PCs because they are routine. If a message about collection of data becomes common on mobile devices, I’ll bet good money most people would just click “OK.” How effective will getting consent be? Will governments need to step in with more heavy-handed regulation? Perhaps they should. It isn’t often that Big Brother tells you that you need to watch out for other entities acting like, well, Big Brother.

There is some level of overinflated egoism behind this concern. It is highly unlikely that you’ll ever be a direct target of malicious intent. However, could contextual experience become obnoxious, with constant notices and upsell attempts? Worse yet, as we’ve seen with the recent hackings of the New York Times and Twitter, even reputable companies that have no ill will toward your data could be used as a weapon against you.

I’m not trying to imply that the black helicopters will soon be flying overhead, just that we should be cognizant of the creepy possibilities that exist and that these boundaries are only going to be pushed further over time. As the volumes and varieties of mobile data collected grow exponentially, the opportunity to have increasingly sophisticated contextual experiences grows as well. However, so does the possibility of abuse of data. While we endeavor to strike the balance between convenience and concern, it’s important we do so with eyes wide open.

Benjamin Robbins is a co-founder at Palador, a mobile strategy and solutions consultancy located in Seattle, WA. He can be followed on Twitter @PaladorBenjamin.

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