Saturday, October 15, 2005


Well, it's 10pm Saturday night and I'm RAS'd in to corpnet. Work won out.

I was digging through a corporate intranet site looking for some technical information, and came across a SharePoint web part that was pulling in a feed of top stories from MSNBC (could it be made any easier to get sidetracked??). This headline caught my eye: Tracking cell phones for real-time traffic data.

There have been pilot research projects like this going on for quite some time now, but this one actually looks like it's headed toward production:

In what would be the largest project of its kind, the Missouri Department of Transportation is finalizing a contract to monitor thousands of cell phones, using their movements to map real-time traffic conditions statewide on all 5,500 miles of major roads.

Wow! This is a step in the right direction toward my vision of location awareness in software. It's not quite there yet, since the cell phones themselves still aren't aware of their own locations, but nonetheless, still a cool collaborative application of software that builds on mobility and location information.

That said, I'm a bit concerned about the privacy implications:

Privacy experts also worry that the traffic monitoring could later evolve into other uses — perhaps to catch speeders or fugitives.

That's because each cell phone has a unique serial number, in addition to its call number and a code that indicates its service provider. A cell phone company must always be able to track the location of its phones in order to know where to route a call.

"It's a mission creep issue that would be of most concern to consumers," said Lillie Coney, associate director of Washington, D.C.-based EPIC. "They may start out saying we want to know if there's a traffic problem and then take that information and start using it for different purposes."

The government will now have the ability to track the movement of cell phones in real time. McCarthy would've had a field day with this toy. "Show me the current location of every cell phone that ever entered this building". Yep - it'll be possible.

"Show me the current location of Adam Herscher's cell phone" isn't a far stretch either. Does the PATRIOT Act allow for this? Will future legislation?

What if a hacker gained access to this information? Google Maps mashup, anyone?


Randy said...

Hey Adam, long time no hey...

I agree though, as much as i like the idea of "aware" phones, I have constant pause about the invasion of privacy. Another friend of mine who works for MSN recently showed me a prototype MSN page that would alert your microsoft smartphone to approaching gas stations, restaurants, etc., with little greetings. To me, it seemed nothing but spam. Of course, the opt-in approach you'd advocated for your app sounds interesting, but even still, the big brother aspect for events out of your control give me pause. What if you were in the general vicinity of a crime according to gps data, would police visit you as a potential witness? I'm not sure.... Anonymity, as much as a myth as it is online, still exists in the streets and roads of society. Not sure I want to give that up just yet.

adamjh said...

Hey Randy :-)

Well, I certainly share your concern.

I think the most that people can hope for is that location information is made available on a "need to know" basis.

For example, the mobile carriers already know the location of every mobile phone on their networks and the identity of the people who hold them. It's information they need in order to operate the service. That said, they're not likely to abuse this information at the risk of atrition or even lawsuits.

Presumably, with the exception of targeted investigations, the government does not have this information.. yet.. and it's hardly need-to-know.. for what? Traffic patterns? What restrictions are they under not to abuse it?

By the way, while anonymity might still exist in the streets and roads of this country, it hardly exists in the streets and roads of the UK, every square inch of which seems to be covered by closed circuit TV.

I'd venture to say that the mobile phone location information is actually more concerning than live video. It's a lot easier to identify and track a registered mobile signal than an anonymous face. Hmmm.

Regarding MSN, I guess it's just a matter of whether or not you feel MSN needs to know the location of your mobile phone. If you want to know about approaching gas stations or restaurants, share your location information with MSN. Otherwise, don't.

Ideally, MSN publishes a privacy policy that explicitly states what they do with your personal information. I won't hold my breath for the government to do the same. ;-)

Kyle Mulka said...

Mmmm... Google Maps. If only the street addresses in the UM directory were adjusting based on your current location. Here are the locations of all the HKN Actives:

BTW, I've been talking with Jeff about the future of mates back here at UofM.