Location Services will erode trust, smash hierarchy, and change the world

“Where are you?” Such a simple question. The raison d’etre of cell phones. And a question that will define the century. Location services are here to stay, and they will irrevocably change both the physical and psychological terrain of our planet. They will come to represent the apex of algorithmic intelligence– the endgame of targeted information. But in doing so, they will likely erode the foundations of truth and trust.


Location Services Can Bend the Truth

Let’s get to that last statement first, since it’s a pretty bold claim.

  • Say someone calls you and asks why you haven’t arrived at the [concert/meeting/date/train station]. If you tell them that you’re in a specific place, they believe you (unless they have a reason not to). But when location services are commonplace, it’s easy (trivial even) for someone to check if what you say is true. And at this point, two things will probably happen:darts

  • If you are where you say you are, then you’re mentally categorized as someone who tells the truth—this time. (Fine, fine, I’m being a little cynical.)
  • If you are not where you say you are, the relationship you have with this person might suffer permanently. The idea that someone would lie about things that are easily fact-checked is a pretty grave offense. Even if you think that no one will check, they do. Before location services, this was not possible.
  • If you have your location disabled or if you choose not to display it, you will be mentally categorized as someone with something to hide. Just as a person who uses anonymous mailers or Web redirects is automatically suspect, a person who chooses not to display their location while indicating it verbally would be seen as untrustworthy.
  • Truth” then becomes synonymous with “revealing” instead of keeping things private. Opting out becomes seen as obstructing the truth.

People tend to err on the side of caution, and in this hypothetical future it’s seen as odd to not provide your location. It’s not inherently wrong: after all, it’s your right to do so. But it makes it seem as though you’re hiding something. Even if you aren’t.

“People Don’t Care About Privacy.”


Remember, none of this is due to some vague sense that people are less private in the future– it’s due to the fact that they already are. Mark Zuckerberg argued early in 2010 that privacy is “no longer a social norm” (garnering some heavy backlash, but he’s primarily still right). Parsons professor Bruce Nussbaum claims that the “backlash against Facebook has started“– in part because the college generation who it emerged to serve have now grown up and want to control who sees their personal data.

When you are 14 or 15, all you want in life is those 500 Friends. But when you hit 20, 21 22, you begin to want other things–love, [...] a great first job, family, maybe even privacy.

The generation that used Facebook to “share” are now furious that their employers (or the government) use it to look at their messages and photos — things they had once thought were “private”.

Kids grew up believing social media was their generation’s own special arena and now find it is not. After anger comes their efforts to shut out, narrow and control the images and content on Facebook. [...] By the way, my students tell me that their younger sisters and brothers don’t get their older siblings anger or quest for privacy. They’re still in the “Friending” stage, worrying about popularity, building their status, trying to get 500 digital friends, preferring distance, vague and safe relationships to real eyeball-to-eyeball relationships.

Are We Sharing Too Much?


The current generation of recent college grads have grown up surrounded by a technoculture of sharing, of over-posted indulgences and unwitting (and unnecessary) reveals, to the point where all this pour-your-heart-and-pertinent-demographic-data-out-online makes “the old folk” more than just uneasy: it turns them positively matriarchal. NY Magazine writer Emily Nussbaum (are they related?) writes:

“I feel bizarrely protective of [them], [even someone] I’ve met once—she seems so exposed. And that feeling makes me feel very, very old.

People are sharing more and more information—even if they’re often not aware of the future consequences of doing so.And nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of location-based services, or LBS (such as foursquare, loopt, and now facebook places).

Location, Location, Location

pinpointIf you don’t know how Location Services work, basically you opt-in to a service that lets you voluntarily broadcast where you are. Typically these services are tied in to some kind of reward system: frequent visitors to a bar might get a free drink, or you might be able to find people you know at a new venue. However, it seems mostly of greatest use to advertisers. As a disclaimer, I’ve never really understood the point of these services (then again, I hated Twitter for two years: now look at me).

The potential implications of all this geolocation data was brought to a head in early 2010 by a website called PleaseRobMe. No, this wasn’t a joke—it simply showed the names and locations of anyone who had broadcasted (publicly) that they weren’t at home. This wasn’t meant to encourage robbery, any more than the typical 9-to-5 work schedule would. But it did serve to highlight just how much could be made of data that was being voluntarily shared without boundaries.

You might be thinking, “so what? If I don’t have anything to hide, and I’m not that interesting— I don’t care if people can find out all this data about me.” If you feel this way, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) provides some things to think about:

  • Your employer doesn’t need to know things about whether, when, and where you went to church.
  • Your co-workers don’t need to know how late you work or where you shop.
  • Your sister’s ex-boyfriend doesn’t need know how often she spends the night at her new boyfriend’s apartment.
  • Your corporate competitors don’t need to know who your salespeople are talking to.


To this I’ll add the appropriate “horrible person” rationale: your boss doesn’t need to know if you’re actually sick. Your teacher doesn’t need to know that you’re partying instead of studying. Your in-laws don’t need to know if you’ve gone to an AA meeting. Your friends don’t need to know you ditched them to go hang out with someone else. (Man, am I cynical or what? :) )

So what are we left with? Location services are here to stay, and doubtless will be used by the public at large once they hit “critical mass”—mainly to get a free smoothie, or tell their friends they’ve “arrived” (literally and figuratively).  But all that data, and the simple connect-the-dots it enables for a whole range of undesirables (stalkers, governments, ad agencies, even irritating coworkers) is worth significant thought.

Location will make or break us, as a culture, in that it will fundamentally shape our future beliefs on personal privacy. The Web’s effect on privacy is still somewhat nascent: its disparate pieces are so scattered and disconnected that they don’t present a single “mode” of privacy or publicity. In fact, the only overriding decision one can make regarding Web privacy is to “opt out” entirely: don’t save cookies, don’t use ANY social media, don’t reveal anything about yourself, use anonymizers.


For most people, this isn’t practical or sensible—so online privacy becomes a matter of selectively opting-in at various websites. Much in the way that you give out your email address selectively, you also wouldn’t want it to accompany you to every website. But the “real world” is a real place, and your location is a pertinent piece of information in any context.

At some point in the future, when a large or perhaps even a majority of consumers are broadcasting their whereabouts, they’re almost guaranteed to give a different weight to the issue of privacy. Just as the current college generation grew up without any sense of the information they should keep private (something they are now trying to retroactively control), future generations will likely “opt-in” to more and more of these broadcasting services—that is, if they provide customers with enough value to be useful. (In the new economy, value is the driver of all consumer spending). These choices will, ultimately, define the “new norms” of private or public data. In other words, according to Zuckerberg we’ve already made that choice on Facebook. What choice will we make “IRL“?


What do you think of these ideas? Will our conscience, or our desire to appear “trustworthy”, force us into broadcasting our whereabouts? At that point, will we even feel forced, or will it seem natural and voluntary? Or will we decide to clamp down and keep ourselves “off the grid” unless there is significant value in changing our minds?

Or is all of this a sheer, unfounded paranoia? (I’m willing to accept that :) )

I’m really interested in your thoughts. Please, let me know what you think in the comments.

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broadcast from East 3rd St, New York :)

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