Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Your Phone Knows Where You Are, and Always Will. Get Used to It.

Yesterday everyone seemed to freak out about the disclosure that Apple’s iPhone collects data on where it has been. Ooooh, scary. There were lots of references comparing Steve Jobs to Big Brother from 1984.

I wasn’t surprised that this data–which shows basically everywhere an iPhone owner has been with the phone in his or her possession since iOS 4 was released–is being collected. But it’s important to make one thing clear before we go any further: There’s no evidence that Apple is collecting any information about where you go. It does collect anonymized information on where iPhones go, and it has a number of legitimate business purposes for doing so.

Nor is any of what Apple is doing some kind of newly discovered secret. In fact, it has been documented for some time. (For more on this, read this excellent post by Alex Levinson, an expert on iOS security.) In fact, Apple has been very clear in its privacy policy about what data it collects, and even highlighted the part about location data in a letter to Congress last year.

Got all that? Okay, let’s proceed.

I found the revelation unsurprising because of stories I’ve written in recent years on the new field of academic research known as “reality mining.” I wrote about it for BusinessWeek in 2008 and interviewed two researchers from MIT, both of whom told me that there is a great deal of value–both commercial value and value to society at large–that can come from gathering data on where people go, and also when they go there and who they go with.

The value comes not in gathering that data about you personally, but in aggregating it, basically mixing it all together with the same data about everyone else, until you have huge databases on the comings and goings of millions of people. It’s helpful for a city to know, for instance, how many cars cross a bridge between the hours of 7 am and 8 am, and how the traffic varies by the day of the week. It’s helpful to see how many people drove to the last New York Yankees game and how many people took the subway, and also how bad the crowd congestion was both on the streets and on the trains.

Getting an accurate picture of exactly how many people are involved is tricky. You can try to do a labor-intensive count or you can estimate, but both are messy and subject to error. A wireless phone is a pretty good sensor because almost everyone will be carrying one and each phone identifies itself to the closest cell tower, so it’s easy to count. The value comes not from knowing who was where at any given time, but how many were there.

Wireless phones already play a big role in tracking traffic congestion. If you use a GPS receiver in your car that gives you live traffic information, those green and red lines that appear on the map are often generated by thousands of cars with wireless phones in them, all of them reporting their location, speed and direction of travel. The company that tracks that information, analyzes it and turns it into something useful is Inrix, and its name can be found stamped on the packaging of a number GPS receivers. When yours pipes up to say “traffic ahead” or says it is changing your route because of congestion, it’s because it is getting a live data feed that is generated in part by information gathered from wireless phones. Are you still so creeped out?

But let’s take it a step further and imagine a case where it actually might be useful and not anonymized. Let’s say you’ve caught a really bad flu but it’s in its early stages, so you’re feeling just a little sick and you go to work. The next day you find out you’ve got this year’s super-flu virus. Would there be a public health benefit in being able to look through a record of where you’ve been? Could there also be a benefit from cross-referencing that with data from other people’s phones to find out how many people–and who–has been within close enough proximity to you during the last 24 hours to maybe catch this flu from you? Data gathered from your phone and others could conceivably help arrest the spread of that super flu by giving authorities an accurate picture of how many people are connected in the branching chains of potential infection.

After a while you start seeing patterns, and these patterns can help solve other problems large and small. Does your town need a traffic light at that intersection based on the number of people who drive through it every day? Does your city need to build another subway line because the existing ones are overwhelmed? Reasonable minds can have different perceptions as to the scale of problems. Real, unimpeachable data can only add clarity to the debates.

MIT’s Sensable City Lab has done some fascinating work in this area. Its most recent project has taken the team to Singapore, and I’ve embedded a video below that shows samples of some of the data they’ve gathered and turned into visualizations. Another older video from a 2008 project, The New York Talk Exchange, showing calls made to and from New York, is just as interesting.

Is there a commercial use for this sort of data? You bet. Advertisers will always pay for the right and the ability to reach you in some new and incrementally intrusive way. But that’s just the way that things go, though more often than not, if you don’t like it, you have the ability to opt out or not participate. But people do choose to participate. Ask the eight million Foursquare users why they like voluntarily giving up their live location data day after day. They have clearly opted in because there’s something about that they like, and it isn’t just claiming the mayorship of the corner tavern. And there are probably scores of other commercial uses for the location data on our phones that I’m not imaginative enough to think of.

My point in all this is really simple. Phones have for about a decade had GPS chipsets in them that can keep track of the phone’s precise coordinates–latitude and longitude plus their position relative to a cellular tower. To anyone who is surprised that this data is being collected and even being used I have only this to say: Well, duh! You better get used to it. As long as there’s value in measuring where we go, the phones we take with us everywhere are going to be the device used to do the measuring.

Yes, there needs to be a clear set of rules of the road, and I think the discussion touched off by this round of coverage will help us get to setting those rules. But the data is so valuable, and the potential for benefits are so great, that no amount of consumer outrage is going to put an end to your phone keeping track of where it is.

(Cool Image borrowed from MIT’s New York Talk Exchange)

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First the NSA came for, well, jeez pretty much everybody’s data at this point, and I said nothing because wait how does this joke work

— Parker Higgins via Twitter