Google has delivered an early Christmas gift to Apple iPhone users everywhere, – a full-featured, free, Google Maps app is now available in the iTunes store as an alternative to the, ah, somewhat lacking new Apple equivalent. The new app has plenty of features the iOS5 maps app didn’t, like turn-by-turn steering, and has been warmly welcomed by hipsters struggling to get home without in-phone navigation the world over.
But there are a few new features that have raised the hackles of a few who worry about their privacy. For one, the app prompts you to log in to your Google account when you launch it. It requests your home address if you haven’t already provided it and it asks you to opt in to having your location data collected (users can uncheck a box to decline this). It seems Google wants to know who you are, where you live, and where you go – almost like Big Brother, but with a better PR set-up and brilliant doodles.
This conclusion might be premature, though. For one, there’s a lot of benefit that can come from this data – directly and indirectly – for end users. Working out what the heck people are actually trying to find when they search on maps is a delicate business.
At the most obvious end, someone typing “soho” from Camden is probably not looking for the same thing as someone typing “soho” in Manhattan. That much might be easy to glean simply from location data – but for more finely-grained queries, guessing the right location might be helped by algorithmic information on where other people who made similar searches ended up going. Similarly, asking for your home address makes it a bit easier to quickly enter into a mapping app “get me home” – a feature which might be particularly welcome for those over-indulging during the Christmas party season.
Data-driven apps like Google do tend to work better if they have, well, data. And there’s a good case to make on lots of user benefits from these things. But it is important to look at the “negatives”. For one – let’s not pretend here – this information is useful to Google. If Google, or any other company, is giving away an app for free, then this must be intended to recoup revenue in some other way, whether directly or indirectly. The classic revenue route for mapping apps is locally targeted adverts. If I type “pub”, a more prominent “sponsored” pin paid for by a local drinking establishment may pop up – and that may just influence my choice of destination.
Other less direct ways of profiting are possible. Information on our location and identity could be used to build more detailed profiles of our interests, activities and (by extension) what products and services we might buy. This would be still further enhanced by cross-matching it to our friends, families and partners. This is something of a theoretical possibility, but is at least technically possible from the data collected.
Herein lies the rub: location data, even anonymised, is astonishingly revealing about who we really are. Let’s say you’re a married man, but tend to a visit a residential address that’s not your own, after 10pm, two or three times a week. Is this innocuous location data, or deeply private? The collection and storage of this information leaves it open to scrutiny by law and intelligence services – and Google may be compelled to hand it over without even letting you know that’s happened. This happens thousands of times a year.
The big data era enables huge amounts of tracking and state surveillance that simply wasn’t possible before, even without the slightest ill intention on the part of those collecting the data.
But it’s also the cost of doing business. Google certainly isn’t alone in collecting location data, and it’s not a new practice. Companies give us great services, for free, and the quid pro quo is knowing more about who we are. As ever with free services, users aren’t the customers, but rather simply a commodity.
It seems to be a trade-off almost all of us are willing to make. The question is whether we really know what we’re letting ourselves in for.
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