Location tracking – where will it all end?

29 Aug 2014

This article originally appeared on the BillingViews blog

The well-used term ‘location, location, location’ has always been linked to smart real estate buying, but it now has taken on a rather sinister alternative meaning, thanks to Google.

In case you are unaware, your every movement is being tracked and recorded by the big G, whether you like it or not. Well, not your movements to be exact, more those of your smart device that is happily communicating your location day and night.

My cousin stumbled on this after biking around Paris and discovering a Google site that showed not only all the places he had ridden, connected by lines, but also images of the places he stopped. He thought it was quite novel - until the invasion of his privacy struck home.

It seems that all he did was sign up for location services on his Android phone, just as most of us do, otherwise half your apps won’t work properly. By doing this, and assuming you have the location history and location reporting settings activated, you automatically agree to the terms and conditions applied by Google that includes the travelogue my cousin was presented with.

In case you don’t believe me, check for yourself. Go to this Google site and log in using the same Google account you use on the phone. Select the date range on the calendar to the left and ‘vavavavoom’ up comes the spider’s web of your movements for that period of time.

Apple does the same, via its ‘Frequent Locations’ option introduced in iOS7 and I think we can assume that the information is not being compiled just to produce imagery for our own enjoyment.

It’s not difficult to see the potential commercial value of this for businesses wanting to sell you something, but if we take into account the sweeping powers governments have to collect this data, legally or illegally, you can imagine how valuable it becomes.

But this is not the only way you can expose your location to potential advertisers, or investigators. It seems those indulgent and somewhat narcissistic ‘selfies’ are providing valuable information to those keen enough to track down your location from your surroundings.

However, the real value of ‘selfies’ is what else appears around you in the photos. The ‘experts’ and some very clever analytical software, can tell a lot about you and your habits just by perusing your surroundings. Are those ‘Coke’ cans on the table behind you, or empty McDonalds packaging?

And what brand clothing are you wearing? Sunglasses, hats, t-shirts, hairstyle, car, furniture – need I go on? Those seemingly innocent images you are taking ad-nauseam are giving your personal life details away to anyone keen enough to analyse them to sell you more of what you like or convince you to try something you don’t.

That probably explains recent acquisitions by Pinterest, Facebook and Google in companies that have worked out how to extract this type of information from images. They believe this consumer information is more accurate than ‘likes’ that are easily faked. After all, who would bother to set up a scene for a selfie?

Traditional demographic marketing has tended to group people of certain ages, socio-economic backgrounds, location, etc., but by analyzing your images more closely, marketers can personalize the offerings they will make directly to you in future.

Thinking twice about that next ‘selfie’? You might be but billions continue to post images of their personal lives daily to the most popular sites that are only too keen to try any new ideas that can make them money.

Shouldn’t be too long before someone comes up with an app that pixelates the background of ‘selfies’ and allows you to change what you are wearing. Where will it all end?

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