Lifelog apps in a post-Snowden world

04 Jul 2013

ITEM: The company behind mobile lifelog app Saga – which automatically records every place you go – is working on a new version that uses every sensor and peripheral in a smartphone to figure out what you are doing and log it.

The current version of Saga works by automatically logging your location, pulling data from your social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as fitness apps like FitBit and RunKeeper, and then crunching all that data in the cloud to generate infographics about your daily life.

The next step is to find ways to use the device’s barometer, cameras, microphones and location sensors to figure out where someone is and what they are up to, reports Technology Review:

“If I know that you’re going to be sitting at work for nine hours, we can power down our collection policy to draw as little power as possible,” says Andy Hickl, CEO of ARO. Saga will wake up and check a person’s location if, for example, a phone’s accelerometer suggests he or she is on the move; and there may be confirmation from other clues, such as the mix of Wi-Fi networks in range of the phone. Hickl says that Saga typically consumes around 1 percent of a device’s battery, significantly less than many popular apps for e-mail, mapping, or social networking.

That consumption is low enough, says Hickl, that Saga can afford to ramp up the information it collects by accessing additional phone sensors. He says that occasionally sampling data from a phone’s barometer, cameras, and microphones will enable logging of details like when a person walked into a conference room for a meeting, or when they visit Starbucks, either alone or with company.

For example, barometer data can be used to determine which floor of a building you’re on. The microphone can be used to collect “acoustic fingerprints” for additional clues about location (to tell whether you’re in a coffee shop or a bar next door). And sampling light sources via the camera can detect when you move from ambient light to natural light.

All of this can be used to help fill in the gaps in Saga’s lifelog data when you stay in one place for a long period of time, Hickl tells TR:

“[When] I go home today and spend 12 hours there, to Saga that looks like a wall of nothing,” he says, noting that Saga could use sound or light cues to infer when during that time at home he was, say, watching TV, playing with his kids, or eating dinner.

Needless to say, all of this may sound a little unsettling in these days when the headlines are full of stories about the incredible digital footprints everyone generates online, how companies want to use that Big Data for all kinds of commercial purposes, and how a lot of that data is being bought and sold – and not just to marketing companies.

And that’s before we get into the whole NSAthing.

Obviously Saga is completely voluntary – you have to download the app to use it. On the other hand, the same is true of Facebook, Google Maps and every other app and service that collects user info.

And according to TR, ARO’s business model includes licensing some of its technology to other companies that want to “other companies that want to be able to identify their users’ location or activities”. Hinkl also says that aggregate data from Saga users should also be valuable.

None of this is to say that Saga and other lifelogging apps are a bad idea. But I do wonder how much demand there will be for lifelogging in a post-Snowden world.

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