A lack of trust in technology companies and fear of location data being misused can lead to people taking some fairly illogical actions.
Slavka Bielikova, advocacy programme coordinator at Consumers International, has seen a lot of research on consumer behaviour in relation to data and consent. She knows of an example of one man who purposefully avoided designating his address as ’home’ when using Google Maps in the belief that Google wouldn’t know where he lived.
This person failed to recognise that his phone would be sending data signals from a fixed location during the hours of darkness, and it would not be a stretch for Google to infer that the individual lived there. This person is also me. I have set my Google ‘home’ a mile away from where I actually live as I also didn’t make the connection that Google is very good at making connections.
Concerns were raised about other apps and tech companies, including weather forecast apps often used on mobile devices which are notorious for harvesting personal data, selling it to third-parties and not being transparent with users.
This issue of a lack of trust in technology companies is widespread. A survey carried out by Consumers International found that over half of 6,000 people surveyed do not trust their IoT device but still use it. They end up putting their trust in the manufacturer of the device and hoping that they are acting in their best interest.
When asked ‘do consumers care?’ Bielikova responded that they do. She cited research from different sources about consumer sentiment that has shown new technology generates and elicits feelings that they didn’t have about old technology. Those feelings included creepiness, helplessness and loss of control. That loss of control means that they are subject to technology rather than the other way around.
Dr Ana Basiri of the Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis confirmed that the threat to privacy is very real, as tech companies are able to jigsaw together a profile of someone. Information can be inferred about you from your location data which be cross-referenced with public information.
During the panel, moderated by Alex Wrottesley, head of Geovation, which hosted the event, several questions were raised. What is a fair balance between user privacy and the utility of a product or service? Should big tech companies be taxed on the data they hold and process? Where does the responsibility lie? Should consumers expect tech companies to adhere to a code of conduct? Is privacy a right or a privilege? Should you have to pay for privacy?
A lot of interaction took place with the very engaged audience, and poignant points were made. One being it is easy to give consumers what they want, but it is much harder to give them what they need. In addition, Basiri said that the two concepts of ‘usability’ and ‘useful’ are different.
One really good idea was put forward was of being able to change the accuracy settings different uses of data. This would mean that an individual could set their location accuracy at five metres for their navigation apps but at one kilometre for weather forecast apps. Currently, most consumers only have the option of turning location services off or on.
In the midst of this debate, it is important to remember the good that can be done with location data. Vehicle recovery and first response from emergency services are much easier when users do not have to describe their location, perhaps in unfamiliar surroundings, and some women feel far safer navigating a city with a mobile app and not having to ask strangers for directions.
Does privacy exist? Is everything public by default? These are questions that consumer groups, policy-makers, tech companies, law-makers and individuals have started to and must continue to grapple with to allow everyone to make the most of the utility of new technologies while still maintaining their preferred level of privacy.
The debate was part of the Benchmark Initiative, sponsored by the Omidyar Network. Geovation is an accelerator and hub for organisations working with location data.