The Watchers Are Watching

“For brands, following someone’s precise movements is key to understanding the “customer journey” — every step of the process from seeing an ad to buying a product. It’s the Holy Grail of advertising, one marketer said, the complete picture that connects all of our interests and online activity with our real-world actions.

Once they have the complete customer journey, companies know a lot about what we want, what we buy and what made us buy it. Other groups have begun to find ways to use it too. Political campaigns could analyze the interests and demographics of rally attendees and use that information to shape their messages to try to manipulate particular groups. Governments around the world could have a new tool to identify protestors.”

-Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel, “Twelve Million Phones, One Dataset, Zero Privacy.” The New York Times. December 19, 2019.

What could possibly go wrong?

Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones

“We audit their practices to ensure they are complying with industry codes of conduct,” said Bowden. “No Google data is used. This extensive audit process includes regular reporting, interviews, and evaluation to ensure vendors meet specified requirements around consent, opt-out, and privacy protections.”

—Ava Kofman, “Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones.” The Intercept. January 28, 2019.

As these ideas go, this is a good use of the kind of data phones are collecting. For urban planning, it’s great to be able to look at real time road, sidewalk, public transit, building, park and other infrastructure usage.

But, it always starts with good ideas and then, the incentives encourage implementations and extensions that are a net negative, such as using real time location data and artificial intelligence to look for anomalous movement patterns for policing. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of ways this information, packaged in aggregate, could go horribly wrong.

Also, no Google data is being used? Even if true, the key word missing is “…yet.” They are seeing how it is received first, putting it on telephone service providers, before they add in Google data. A Google service of this type will eventually use Google data.

Tracking Firm LocationSmart Leaked Location Data for Customers of All Major U.S. Mobile Carriers in Real Time Via Its Web Site

“A third-party firm leaking customer location information data [from all U.S. mobile telephone service providers in real-time] poses serious privacy and security risks for virtually all U.S. mobile customers (and perhaps beyond, although all my willing subjects were inside the United States).”

Brian Krebs, “Tracking Firm LocationSmart Leaked Location Data for Customers of All Major U.S. Mobile Carriers in Real Time Via Its Web Site.” KrebsonSecurity.com. May 17, 2017.

What could possibly go wrong?