past failures, 11 federal attorneys continue to argue that the government
should be granted access to mobile
phone location information without
probable cause. 2 Although the courts
have consistently rejected these arguments, the implication is clear—
governments place a great deal of value
on knowing our whereabouts and
movement patterns, and are actively
seeking a legal pathway to gaining
to track or not to track
As with any new technology that has
implications for our personal privacy,
human mobility tracking is currently a
divisive and highly controversial issue.
The future of this activity will therefore
depend on how we as a society collectively judge its costs and benefits. On
the one hand, concerned citizens, privacy advocates, and organizations such
as the ACLU recognize the immense
potential for government malfeasance
and corporate abuse of this technology. 10 Such concerns should not be ignored or easily dismissed, because the
current federal law that governs electronic privacy—the Electronic Communications Privacy Act—does not
specifically address human mobility
tracking. On the other hand, many scientists, corporations, and individual
consumers see immense social and
monetary value in this technology. Evidence for this can be seen in the rapid
growth of GPS-based services such as
Foursquare, Gowalla, and Facebook
Places, and in the fact that revenue
from human mobility tracking is expected by some researchers to reach
nearly $13 billion by 2014.7
When coupled with demonstrable
scientific and social benefits, the po-
in a sense, we all
choose to allow
these parties to
tential for companies to earn so much
money from human mobility tracking
makes it nearly impossible to imagine
a future without it. If the expansion
of human mobility tracking is indeed
inevitable, then we must collectively
be willing to accept the responsibilities that come along with it. First, I believe we owe it to ourselves to further
study the impacts of this technology.
Further, we must recognize the privacy
implications of human mobility tracking, and act ethically when developing location-based services. Finally,
we must all remain eternally vigilant
against any corporations, governments, or individuals who might seek
to misuse or abuse this technology at
the Path ahead
Given the many potentially unethical or otherwise questionable uses
to which human mobility tracking
might be applied, these activities
seem a natural target for legal regulation. Direct government regulation of
private-sector human mobility tracking could, however, impede the many
efforts in this area that are being directed at genuinely altruistic ends.
For this reason, I believe all wireless
service providers, mobile app developers, and other computing professionals involved in GPS-based human
mobility tracking should take proactive steps toward self-regulation. A
good place to start would be the voluntary adoption of a set of principles
designed to protect customer location data, such as those proposed in
the Wireless Association’s Best Practices and Guidelines for Location Based
Services. 3 Further, although mobility tracking is just beginning to enter
the public consciousness, researchers in ubiquitous computing have
been studying these issues for several
years, and their efforts may prove to
be a wellspring of useful ideas. If we
as a global community of computing
professionals can agree to behave responsibly, then it may be possible to
help protect our collective privacy,
stave off government regulation, and
allow human mobility modeling to
develop at a natural pace.
Whether or not researchers, corpo-
rations, and governments are able to
acquire and benefit from knowledge
about our individual locations and
movements is largely up to us. In a
sense, we all choose to allow these par-
ties to gather information about us. By
opting to use the mobile technologies
and apps that enable our locations
and movements to be recorded, we are
agreeing, either explicitly or implic-
itly, to allow others to benefit from our
personal information. Once we have
lost ownership of our location infor-
mation, another party may, within the
boundaries of the law, use or sell that
information for profit without our per-
mission. While for now we might take
some comfort in knowing we can flip
the switch to “off,” the increasingly
ubiquitous nature of mobile comput-
ing technologies implies they will
soon become difficult to avoid.
Ultimately, it appears that if we want
to enjoy the many benefits afforded by
mobile computing technologies, we
must be willing to give up at least some
of the privacy that was enjoyed by previous generations. This is, it would seem,
the price we all must pay to live in a
modern, technology-driven world.
1. barabasi, a.-l. Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind
Everything We Do. Penguin group, new york, 2010.
2. buchanan, m.b. and eberhardt, r.e. in the matter of
the application of the united states of america for an
order directing a provider of electronic communication
service to disclose records to the government. united
states court of appeals for the third circuit, 2010.
3. ctia. Best Practices and Guidelines for Location
Based Services. the wireless association, washington,
4. gonzález, m.c., hidalgo, c.a., and barabási, a.-l.
understanding individual human mobility patterns.
Nature 453 (2008), 779–782.
5. hill, J., horton, m., Kling, r., and Krishnamurthy, l.
the platforms enabling wireless sensor networks.
Commun. ACM 47, 6 (June 2004), 41–46.
6. itu. Measuring the Information Society. international
telecommunication union. geneva, switzerland, 2010.
7. Mobile Location Based Services: Applications,
Forecasts & Opportunities. Juniper research ltd,
basingstoke, hampshire, u.K., 2010.
8. modeling human mobility (acm news). Commun. ACM
web site (apr. 28, 2010).
9. mitchell, t.m. mining our reality. Science 326 (2009),
10. ozer, n.a., conley, c., o¹connell, h., ginsburg, e., and
gubins, t. Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy
Check-In. american civil liberties union (aclu), san
Francisco, ca, 2010.
11. singel, r. u.s. cell-phone tracking clipped.
Wired (2005); http://www.wired.com/news/
12. song, c., Qu, Z., blumm, n., and barabási, a.-l. limits
of predictability in human mobility. Science 327 (2010),
13. thompson, D. google’s ceo: “the laws are written by
lobbyists.” The Atlantic (oct. 1, 2010).
Daniel Soper ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of the
faculty of the information systems and decision sciences
department at california state university, Fullerton.
copyright held by author.