Friday, January 8, 2010

Watching people walk down the street

It's just snowed in Paris, and I'm looking out my window, watching the children and the dogs play. Almost everyone walking down avenue Foch seems to be speaking on a cell phone. I doubt many of them are thinking about how their location data is being captured, stored or used.

EU countries began passing the Data Retention laws mandated by a European Directive. That means that massive databases of communications logs will now be collected and stored by communications service providers across Europe for 6 months to 2 years, for police and law enforcement purposes (France, for example, chose 12 months). This is the largest police surveillance database ever mandated in the history of humanity to date. The year ahead will define how all this is going to work in practice: who will be able to access them, for what purposes, under what controls, how should this work in a cross-border context, etc. Will other countries follow Europe down this path? For most people, I imagine, the most sensitive aspect of this is the idea that their physical movements can be tracked by the police over long periods of time.

But the mobile revolution is just starting. Think for a moment about the intersection of mobile and face recognition software. For some years, in small controlled contexts, the police have already been using face recognition software to find individuals in a crowd. Online photo albums already offer some face recognition software in the contexts of particular albums, or in the contexts of social networking sites: take a look at But reflect on the prospect of face recognition software that could be used from any Internet-connected smart phone that can photograph a face and return instant search results. Google already announced the launch of Goggles without face recognition and acknowledged the privacy concerns in applying similar technologies to identifiable human faces. There's a lot of work to do to think through the privacy design of image recognition software applied to faces. The more I think about it, the more complicated it gets.

The web is going mobile, and as Internet apps go mobile too, location-aware services will explode in 2010 and beyond. That means that location data will be captured and used. Location privacy will become a key new issue in the mainstream in the year ahead. It's been around for years in cell phones, of course, but the issues will grow exponentially in the age of proliferating third-party location aware apps. It's one thing for you to know (or be dimly aware) that your cell phone company knows where you are based on your cell phone's location, it's quite another to have a plethora of third-party apps know that too.

Mobile is where the next generation of tough privacy issues will come, I muse, as I watch people walk down a Paris street that hasn't changed much in a hundred years.


Patti said...

I love reading your blog Peter. It is not only informitive but interesting. Have a great day.

Anonymous said...

Did you know that Avenue Foch, no. 84 I think, was the headquarters of the Gestapo during WW2. Now that was a surveillance society!


Álvaro Del Hoyo said...


Europe style privacy considers it a right no matter what the behaviour or interrested person is.

Intimacy rght in Spain is being considered case by case depending on if you are or not a person with public relevation, so interest general is eroding your default intimacy right, and depending which your acts has been in the past.

Privacy right will follow intimacy right. It will not be the same the privacy of a social networks heavy user that have placed some privacy filters than the one of a social networks heavy user that is not using any privacy filters or is using them allowing extreme transparency. But then this is charging people of a huge responsability, difficult to manage in time employed to do so.

Again here are my "ruminations" in a system based on some centralyzed and preconfigured privacy options that could be consulted for personal data controller or processor. In any way, project is extremely difficult to develop and will jeopardize web surfing anonymous right.