Privacy implications of applications used for monitoring

April 22, 2012 |

In Tomorrow’s Privacy Struggles, On Display Today in the New York Times.  It provides:

The thorny privacy issues of tomorrow were on display Thursday morning, when AT&T showed off a batch of technologies under development at AT&T Labs, the company’s research arm.

Researchers showed off door handles that unlock when you tap your phone against them, or even when the device is still in your pocket, sending vibrations through your body and into your fingertips. There was a steering wheel that communicates with a GPS device and vibrates to tell you which way to turn, and an app that works with sensors in your personal possessions to tell you when you have left something behind.

A number of the tools focused on taking advantage of data about a user’s location, pointing toward tensions that will very likely increase as products are developed that use mobile devices as sensors and transmitters. These issues are not necessarily about what AT&T or other companies will do with their users’ personal data — although it is clear that there will be no shortage of concerns about that, either — but potential conflicts created by tools intended for people to keep track of one another.

Driving Safely, which is being developed by a group of Israeli developers who are working with AT&T, uses a smartphone and sensors in a car to allow parents to keep track of how their teenagers are driving. The system can disable certain functions of the phone, like calling or texting, when it is in a moving automobile. Apps intended to discourage distracted driving already exist — AT&T has an app that shuts down some functions in response to a car’s movement. But its settings can be controlled by whoever is using the phone at the time which, depending on your perspective, could be seen as a shortcoming.

“It needs the kid’s consent, so he has to download and use it,” said Raz Dar of Amdocs, who is working on the project.

Not so with Driving Safely. Users enter their children’s phone numbers, and the app automatically begins gathering information. A parent then sees the information from a car’s dashboard, like how fast it is traveling or how much gas is in the tank. The system can be set to send alerts, so that users will be notified instantaneously if drivers they are tracking brake suddenly after sending a text, or are driving without seat belts.

The app also collects data over time to give what Mr. Dar described as a driver’s “DNA score,” showing how safely someone is driving. He pulled up a prototype app, showing two children from a fictional family side by side; one sibling was a slightly safer driver than the other.

Mr. Dar acknowledged that this sort of monitoring will most likely be more popular among those doing the tracking than those being tracked. So the system builds in a rewards system for drivers. If a driver maintains a certain DNA score over a period of time, for instance, his or her account would be credited with an extra allotment of text-messaging capability. Testing on the app is set to begin in June with a group of AT&T employees in Atlanta and their children.

Brian Ach/AP Images for AT&TGerald Karam describing Donde, a location-based messaging app.

Another project that AT&T is testing is Donde, a location-based messaging system that could one day end up as part of its network’s basic SMS service. The program allows someone to send a text that will be delivered when the recipient arrives at a specific location. Someone could send her husband a message to pick up milk, for instance, and it will be delivered at the moment he leaves the office.

But what happens if the recipient never went to work? Gerald Karam, the researcher who is developing Donde, gives the example of a husband who heads to a balloon store instead of to work because he is planning a surprise party for his wife. (But, please, feel free to imagine your own scenario.) Donde would allow him to break into the messages he would have received at work, giving the impression that he is where he said he would be.

So Donde sets the stage for deception, but it also serves as a surveillance tool. One option would send a text message automatically whenever a user arrived or departed from a specific location, so that, for instance, a father would be notified each time his son arrived home from school. The system would also allow a user to permit himself to be tracked by another AT&T phone, either temporarily or indefinitely.

Mr. Karam said AT&T plans to begin testing Donde in the next two to three months with a group of about 1,000 users, to see how people use the system in real world situations. He will then work to adapt the system accordingly.

How he chooses to do this will not be a response to technical questions; it will be a response to questions of values. AT&T could accommodate lying husbands, or satisfy nosy parents. Either way, these are choices that we will probably be arguing about indefinitely.

Tracking apps pose a real and substantial privacy risk. The potential to abuse a monitoring system designed for, the marginally effective, use by a concerned parent regarding the driving behaviour of a child to becoming a tool to spy and control that person is almost guaranteed. For one thing there does not appear to be any consent of the child required.


Leave a Reply

Verified by MonsterInsights