Location Privacy Issue? I See No Location Privacy Issue

Telematics, the use of GPS and mobile technology within the automotive business, and the Web 2.0, neo and paleo aspects of location have traditionally carved parallel paths, always looking at if they would converge but somehow never quite making enough contact to cross over.

But not any more.The combination of 3G mobile communications and GPS enabled smart-phones such as the iPhone and the BlackBerry means that one way or another, the Internet and the Web are coming into the car, either in your pocket or into the car itself.

With this in mind, last week I was at the Telematics Munich 2009 conference, which was coincidentally in Munich, giving a talk on some of the challenges we face with location and how the world of telematics can benefit by starting to look at location technologies on the Web.

One of the sessions I sat in on prior to my talk was on the eCall initiative. This is a pan European project to help motorists involved in a collision. A combination of onboard sensors, a GPS unit and a cellular unit detect when an accident has occured and sends this information to the local emergency services. The idea is that in circumstances where a vehicle's occupants are unable to call for help, the car can do it for them.So far, so public spirited and well meaning. But several things immediately stood out.

Firstly, while pitched as a pan European initiative, each member state has an opt out and naturally not all states have signed up to the initiative, including the United Kingdom.

Secondly, eCall is designed to be a secure black box system, but all the talk in Munich was of "monetize eCall offerings by integrating contactless card transactions like road-tolling, eco-tax and easy parking payment" or "how to geo-locate data messages to offer ubiquitous solutions". In other words, adding value added services on top of a system which is actively able to track you at all times and which you, as the vehicle owner, has limited access to or control over.

But what really stood out was that there was not a single mention of location tracking and of the privacy aspects that this carries with it. Not a single mention. Not from the panel, not from the chair and not from the audience. Once rolled out, eCall as currently designed is pretty much mandatory in all new vehicles. Compare and contrast this with the outraged Daily Mail style diatribe that other, opt in, systems such as Yahoo's Fire Eagle and Google's Latitude have attracted.

The convergence of the internet, the web and telematics hasn't yet happened but it will. It's also evident that when this happens, the telematics industry may have a painful awakening as the impact of location technologies and the privacy issues they carry pervade into an industry which hasn't needed to deal with this historically.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user