Wired’s Mathew Honan experiments with Location-Aware software.

One of the features of the newer iPhone’s and Google Android based cellphones allow the phone, and any applications you’re running on it, to determine where you are to varying degrees of precision. Using a combination of cell towers (500 meters), Wi-Fi (30 meters), and GPS (10 meters) and various software packages that make use of that info you can literally broadcast your whereabouts to the whole world pretty much continuously. 

This opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities, both good and bad, and has attracted a growing group of people practicing a Location-Aware Lifestyle. Wired magazine’s Mathew Honan decided to try spending a few weeks living the lifestyle to see what it was like:

The location-aware future—good, bad, and sleazy—is here. Thanks to the iPhone 3G and, to a lesser extent, Google’s Android phone, millions of people are now walking around with a gizmo in their pocket that not only knows where they are but also plugs into the Internet to share that info, merge it with online databases, and find out what—and who—is in the immediate vicinity. That old saw about how someday you’ll walk past a Starbucks and your phone will receive a digital coupon for half off on a Frappuccino? Yeah, that can happen now.

Simply put, location changes everything. This one input—our coordinates—has the potential to change all the outputs. Where we shop, who we talk to, what we read, what we search for, where we go—they all change once we merge location and the Web.

I wanted to know more about this new frontier, so I became a geo-guinea pig. My plan: Load every cool and interesting location-aware program I could find onto my iPhone and use them as often as possible. For a few weeks, whenever I arrived at a new place, I would announce it through multiple social geoapps. When going for a run, bike ride, or drive, I would record my trajectory and publish it online. I would let digital applications help me decide where to work, play, and eat. And I would seek out new people based on nothing but their proximity to me at any given moment. I would be totally open, exposing my location to the world just to see where it took me. I even added an Eye-Fi Wi-Fi card to my PowerShot digital camera so that all my photos could be geotagged and uploaded to the Web. I would become the most location-aware person on the Internets!

People, particularly younger folks, already put out a lot of information about themselves on the Internet. I’m guilty of this myself with this blog. Not only do I have my real name on it, but there’s a fairly detailed history of the major ups and downs of my life over the past seven years in the archives. Everything from my best friend being needlessly killed by a traffic cop and how I dealt with the loss to my eventual downsizing from Ford Motor Company and the long struggle to get back on my feet. My politics and religious outlook are extensively documented as is the general area that I live in. SEB is the number one search result on Google when you type in “Les Jenkins” followed by some poor bastard who shares my name that works at Colorado One Mortgage.

For all that I put on SEB there are some folks who put me to shame particularly on sites like Facebook and MySpace. You may recall a few months back an entry I wrote about a woman who had been emailing me about her “psychic visions” of my future. I mentioned in a comment that I was able to track down where she lives (to a specific street address), how big a house she owns, how much she bought it for, how many pets she has, what musical instrument she’s trying to teach herself to play, what books shes been reading, her daughter and son-in-law’s name, where they lived, when their wedding was supposed to happen, and a whole host of other personal info with nothing more than her email and IP address. That’s pretty impressive, but even that pales to what some folks make available and then when you add location-awareness into the mix you make it all that much more immediate. Which could have its downside:

The trouble started right away. While my wife and I were sipping stouts at our neighborhood pub in San Francisco (37.770401 °N, 122.445154 °W), I casually mentioned my plan. Her eyes narrowed. “You’re not going to announce to everyone that you’re leaving town without me, are you? A lot of weirdos follow you online.”

Sorry, weirdos—I love you, but she has a point. Because of my work, many people—most of them strangers—track my various Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, and blog feeds. And it’s true; I was going to be gone for a week on business. Did I really want to tell the world that I was out of town? It wasn’t just leaving my wife home alone that concerned me. Because the card in my camera automatically added location data to my photos, anyone who cared to look at my Flickr page could see my computers, my spendy bicycle, and my large flatscreen TV all pinpointed on an online photo map. Hell, with a few clicks you could get driving directions right to my place—and with a few more you could get black gloves and a lock pick delivered to your home.

To test whether I was being paranoid, I ran a little experiment. On a sunny Saturday, I spotted a woman in Golden Gate Park taking a photo with a 3G iPhone. Because iPhones embed geodata into photos that users upload to Flickr or Picasa, iPhone shots can be automatically placed on a map. At home I searched the Flickr map, and score—a shot from today. I clicked through to the user’s photostream and determined it was the woman I had seen earlier. After adjusting the settings so that only her shots appeared on the map, I saw a cluster of images in one location. Clicking on them revealed photos of an apartment interior—a bedroom, a kitchen, a filthy living room. Now I know where she lives.

Think about that for a moment. Her being in an apartment would make any attempts at larceny a bit more difficult, but what if she lived in a single family home in a suburb? Take the geo-location data on the pictures and look it up in Google Maps—yes you can use latitude and longitude in Google Maps—drop down to Street View and you could even see what the house looks like so long as Google has been through that neighborhood.  Above and beyond simply showing folks where to go to score a nice flat screen TV, this could also potentially be used to allow people to find you anywhere you happen to be making it a boon for potential rapists, stalkers, and plain old crazy people. Those, of course, are worst-case scenarios so let’s not dwell on them too much. Instead just consider how creepy it is that Honan was able to pick a perfect stranger out in a park and with just a little effort peer at the filthy living room in her apartment.

The technology is not without its upside though. Honan talks in the article about how it actually made him more social as friends who had seen he’d be in their area would turn up to hang out for a few minutes and touch base. Additionally some of the tools he was using allowed him to learn more about the area he was in, find the cheapest gas prices, and discover new places to eat he’d never realized were there before. And it’s not as though you have to make use of the tools that expose your precise location every second of the day. The whole article is worth a read if for no other reason than to educate yourself on what’s possible. Right now you have to put some work into setting yourself up to be so exposed, but developers are working to make doing stuff like that easier all the time so it may not be too long before you could set yourself up to broadcast your location constantly without realizing it.

It never hurts to be well-informed.

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