Tuesday, March 2, 2010

One Person's Privacy...

I dislike location-based mobile applications that pinpoint a user's location on a map. A user typically 'check's in' at the locations they visit, and other approved users on the service can see where they are in close to real-time. Products in this genre include such applications as FourSquare, Google Latitude, Loopt etc. and usually combine a cell phone's GPS and meta data to create a service-oriented social application.

I agree there are some fantastic opportunities created by these applications. Augmenting reality is an area of technological development I find fascinating and exciting, and these applications certainly augment. There are opportunities in tourism, social, education and my favorite, gaming.

These applications are also dangerous because they threaten personal privacy. My enthusiasm for new technology would probably blind me to these threats if it wasn't for an experience I had early in my career.

I was working as Assistant Editor of a Canadian IT trade publication and the company that ran it had an in-house art department. The creative director was an older man who had grown up in post-World War II Poland.

I was having lunch with him and telling him about this fantastic new technology I'd just covered in a recent story. The story was about Radio Frequency (RF) tagging, the process by which a tag is added to a product, security card, etc. that emits a radio frequency that can be monitored by sensors. The advantage to the technology is that it allowed everything from shipping companies to retail stores monitor the location of their product in real-time.

One of the applications of the application I told him about was the high-tech house Bill Gates built back in the '90s. It would display images on the walls and play different music in a room based on the tag worn by an occupant. This would guarantee no matter where a person went in the house, their favorite art and music would follow them.

I was giddy with excitement about the possibilities of such a technology. So much so, I failed to notice the creative director was about to lose it. And he did. He explained to me in harsh tones that such systems can give governments too much control; that it was dangerous to be marked; that it is a terrible violation of freedom.

His experiences included a world I had not been exposed to and the emotion he displayed served as a swift kick to my sensibilities. The negative what-ifs began to come to mind. Oppressive governments, stalkers, burglaries, social profiling, playground mocking, terrorism, all the big and little negative twists to what had been up to that point, something very cool.

I view these location-based mobile applications in a similar light. The technology is cool. And there are many great and positive uses for it. But not everyone in society will use the tool as is intended. We must be cautious.

© Jeremy Buehler and Rogue Tendencies (www.roguetendencies.com) 2010.

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