Location Based Surveillance

Steinfield’s ca. 2003 paper reviews the current state and future prospects of Location Based Services—electronic applications which make use of the user’s location to communicate relevant information or take contextual actions. The development that got Steinfield discussing LBS was the increasing ubiquity of mobile phones at the turn of the millennium, which seemed to offer myriad possibilities to keep people connected while away from their desks while regulations in western countries were demanding increased locational accuracy for pinpointing the source of emergency calls.  Unfortunately, at the time Steinfield was writing, LBS had not been very successfully rolled out, and mobile service providers were grappling with which of many user-locating methods to implement.  Today, this question is somewhat settled, since most new smartphones ship with built-in GPS functionality, and there are now fairly reliable ways (though I’m not sure of the specifics) for cellular service providers to triangulate users’ positions using cell towers. For LBS purposes, quickly retrieving user locations has moved from dream to reality in the last 10 years.

All this locational information floating around has become a fertile source for big data applications like transportation planning and monitoring, and has thus opened up many new avenues for geospatial research.  At the same time, the new ubiquity of LBS is challenging the privacy of users.  Steinfield’s analysis made the assumption that the primary gatekeeper for LBS applications would continue to be the mobile service provider, but with GPS now a standard feature of cell phones, anybody whose application has been installed on your device theoretically has access to your location.  Google even knows where I amwhen my phone’s GPS is turned off—they’ve mapped the wifi networks I connect to! A lot of this user information is collected and used in ways that are not fully transparent to the user, for uses ranging from targeted advertising and selling your information (it’s mostly this, actually) to state surveillance.  While Steinfield may have had user privacy at the forefront of his evaluation of location-finding methods, this priority has fallen by the wayside in the pursuit of the next killer app. At our peril?


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