Every once in a while the thorny topic of location privacy rears its ugly head, often in tandem with a new location based service or the discovery of what an existing one is really doing. There’s often cries of “Big Brother” and “company X is tracking me” as well. But lost in the rhetoric and hyperbole around this subject is a well hidden fact … your current location isn’t actually that interesting to anyone apart from yourself.
For most of the day we tend to be on the move so even if a service does know your location that fact becomes irrelevant almost immediately. Intrusive location based advertising is normally held up for inspection here but without context a location is just a set of longitude and latitude coordinates, coordinates that are out of date and no longer relevant almost as soon as they’ve been detected.
Maybe a location based service I use does want to target me with location based ads, but for example, if I’m on my irregular commute from the suburbs to the centre of London on a train, I challenge anyone to find an ad, intrusive or not, that would be contextually relevant to me in sufficient detail that would warrant an advertiser paying out the not insignificant sums that such ad campaigns cost. Unless maybe, just maybe, it’s an ad that offers me a viable alternative to SouthWestTrain’s execrable and expensive train service, but that’s just in the realms of fantasy.
Now it’s true that if you gather enough data points you can start to infer some meaning from the resultant data set. You can probably determine the rough area where someone works and where they live based on their location at certain times of the day. But in today’s connected world of the interwebs, with their social networks and uploaded photographs, that level of locational granularity can be inferred fairly easily without the need to explicitly track the location of an individual.
All of the above can be summed up as something like …
Where you are right now isn’t that interesting. Where you were is slightly more interesting. Where you will be is very interesting.
I’m sure I’ve said words to this effect before in a talk at a conference but try as I might I can’t find a reference to back up this assertion.
What’s even more interesting is that a recent research study at the UK’s University of Birmingham took 200 volunteers who agreed to have their phones track them, added in the locations of their friends in their social graphs and produced an algorithm that was able to predict where a participant would be in 24 hours time, sometimes with accuracies of less than 20 meters and with an average accuracy of around 1000 meters. The full research paper makes for fascinating reading and shows that the real key to location technologies may not be where you currently are but may be much more about our predicability and daily routines for ourselves and our friends.
Now that’s interesting.