Thursday, September 17, 1998

Datateknik Op-Ed: Guard the privacy of your location,

Column in Datateknik 98-14, published 17 Sep 1998. (Original In Swedish)

Guard the privacy of your location, or the future may look like this: I get a great offer from an ISP—Internet Service Provider—for <$150 I get a cell phone with built-in GPS that does everything from measuring my geographical position to letting me participate in video conferences, with one year free use. I fill in a customer profile describing offers I prefer.

Walking down the street I hear a beep. A message on my ‘communicator’ wonders if I am hungry. It is 5:30, and I usually dine at 6.30. Upon opening the message I note a restaurant within 200 meters, offering me something appetizing. The ‘communicator’ wonders if I want to book a table. I accept. I get to speak to a head waiter who satisfies my requests.

My ISP connection is free because their revenues come from corporations who pay to access the database of users’ locations and preferred offers. That list contains more information that you might think. Market analysts tell clients, including the restaurant, about links between interests and personality types with correlation tables showing restaurant preferences. The headwaiter has learned how to satisfy different personality types. Market analysts are critical in building future societies, steering information flow between people who don’t know each other.

Many may not think this looks like a nightmare. I disagree. Information about my geographical position belongs to me and nobody else—my human right, no matter how many other people have no problem sharing that information. We must state—and safeguard—this right before it is eroded. If not, we will get stepped on by our surroundings, while our complaints are brushed off with the usual arguments starting with “But do you really NEED to...” and “Everybody else...”. By the time those in opposition are considered complainers, it will be too late.

Once people get used to their geographical positions being public property it will be hard to stop society from adding control functions, serving citizens via the same data and tools used by the commercial sector. Taxes, for example, can be collected in new ways. A few years ago there were suggestions about GPS-supported fees on private-car use in Stockholm. Why should that not be acceptable, if people let insurance companies demand that cars must carry a GPS-communicator for theft insurance to be valid? It will also be possible to construct completely new surveillance systems. Of course the guiltless will have nothing to hide . . ..

GPS is valuable, development is rapid and systems already in place will endure. We cannot, should not, stop good uses: people under medical watch can carry sensors measuring their condition and GPS-communicators that contact affected physicians/medical institutions.

Amateur boat owners can equip their boats with weather stations and GPS communicators, producing ‘living’ sea maps with accurate data on weather, traffic and mutual safety. For a few hundred dollars anybody may today buy a handheld GPS receiver accurate to a few yards, and prices are falling rapidly. Developers are working on accuracy of inches through fine-monitoring the phaze information of the 1.52-GHz carrier wave that contains the GPS signals from the satellites.

Except for giving exact position, each GPS receiver is a clock providing time as accurately as the atomic clocks in the satellites, so GPS-equipped machines can be synchronized without intercommunication. You may get a parking fine when staying over paid time by a picosecond....

My geographical position should belong to me and to no one else, used by others only with my non-transferable consent, which I should be able to retract at will. Until this is the law, cell phone and Internet providers, and others, should include this in the contractual agreements with users.

David Nordfors
David Nordfors has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and works at the Knowledge Foundation

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