“Path intelligence,” indeed
I want you to go take a look at this Times Online piece, which comes my way via Chris Heathcote’s del.icio.us. (If you’re in a hurry, the gist of it is that a UK-based company called Path Intelligence is using mobile-phone microtriangulation to pinpoint customer behavior inside malls.) I cannot imagine a better-timed demonstration of so many of the facets of so-called “reality mining” that concern me.
The utility of gathering this information is clear, at least from the perspective of a retail establishment:
A shopping mall could, for example, find out that 10,000 people were still in the store at 6pm, helping to make a case for longer opening hours, or that a majority of customers who visited Gap also went to [competitor] Next, which could useful for marketing purposes.
In this case, information gathered from you without your knowledge (let alone your consent) is being used to build models of behavior from which real financial value can be derived. Do you participate in enjoyment of that value? You do not. Not unless you consider the “longer shopping hours” a plus, anyway.
That’s only one of my concerns, and at that, probably the less important one. The other and greater is that given enough data, these traces can be tied to individuals with relative ease. In this context, the assertion by a Path Intelligence spokeswoman that “[t]here’s absolutely no way we can link the information we gather back to the individual” strikes me as risible, given everything we now know about retrieving unique signatures from large data sets. Relying on the fact that a great many people use the mall, in such a comparatively limited number of ways, to disguise your particular activities – what we might call a “security through obscurity” strategy – is not a sustainable way of doing things. If anything, from what I’m told, it gets easier to extract individual records the more data you have.
Even accepting that you might well choose to give this data away if you were somehow compensated for it, how would you go about placing an appropriate value on it? It’s not at all clear to me. Some people object that, since such use data has worth only in the aggregate, any one person’s contribution is insignificant, and should be valued accordingly. I have to disagree: even as one small trace in a very large aggregate, you’re assisting in (e.g.) anomaly detection – that is, your choices as you move through the space of the mall help to establish what a statistically “normal” trajectory looks like, and that’s presumably what retailers are most interested in. Unless I’m missing something, then, each new record of individual spatial choices has a value that is disproportionate to its actual contribution, and most especially so if you can be further identified as a member of a desirable (or highly undesirable) demographic.
So we’re at a point where your own actions, sensed, recorded, and aggregated, create an informational asymmetry by way of which some party who is not you primarily benefits. Am I out to lunch in thinking that this isn’t such a great way for things to be set up?