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People Tracking

The acceptance of being tracked by your mobile is accelerated with the adoption of ticket-less transport systems, increased surveillance and financially successful location-based services

Anyone who has used an iPhone will be aware that location services are now embedded in most smart-phones. By the start of 2010 there were over 6000 location-based iPhone apps, with 600 new ones being released every month. Equally those who may have used Google Latitude will be aware of how easy it is to see where your friends are real time on the basis of their phone location. For many the ability to be positioned by your mobile phone location may seem a new development but it has actually been used for quite some time

From a security perspective, if needed and with cooperation of the mobile networks, the security forces in many countries have been able to locate suspects to within a meter or so by triangulating signals from a mobile to communications masts and this has been a key asset in the police toolbox for over 20 years now. More specific location of people has been possible in recent years, even when a phone is switched off. As long as there is a battery in the phone, it can be remotely turned on, located and turned off in milliseconds and this too has now become an additional security issue. Especially with products like the iPhone where the battery is integrated into the product and cannot be removed, this essentially provides 24/7 tracking potential of phones which is now also being exploited in the commercial world. Services such as Loopt, Venti Coffee and Njection are using this information to respectively broadcast your whereabouts, find the nearest Starbucks and notify you of speed traps.

Moving forward as phones are used to enable ticket-less travel through charging the owner when the phone rather than the person gets on and off public transport networks, the use of the location of a personal mobile device as a reliable surrogate for the individual is stimulating new applications in healthcare, financial payments and social networking to name just a few. However it is not all just about your mobile!

In the US the On-Star in-car communication system has been around for several years now and provides drivers with an back up whereby emergency services can be called and locate a vehicle in case of a breakdown or accident. As this technology has become more widely adopted, the ability to use it to track vehicles has also evolved. Car hire companies have for some time had the capability actively track where you drive and make sure that you don’t cross state and national borders without prior agreement – or if you do then they charge you for the privilege. Although there was a privacy backlash initially, today there is widespread acceptance of this capability. The EU is also mandating the incorporation of this type of technology into every new car from 2012 and so soon the whole vehicle fleet, and hence its drivers, will be able to be tracked. Not only does this allow for better emergency assistance but also acts as a catalyst for the introduction of pervasive road pricing and the like – without the need for toll booths.

Moving on and away from device enabled tracking, many of us are already being clocked in and out of transport systems and many public and corporate buildings. In the UK the OysterCard on the London Transport system is increasingly linked to an individual credit card holder and so can tell the system where you enter and exit the tube and get on and off buses. Similar systems in Hong Kong and Melbourne provide the functionality and as non-contact payment is adopted more widely, so this tracking of us in and out as well as within transport networks will increase.

While passes are common for many corporate employees and visitors, the introduction of biometric entry systems – whether based on fingerprints, voice recognition or iris scans which are a common feature at many airports – are adding an extra layer of traceability. While the security benefits are clear, major issues around privacy are bubbling under the surface.

In addition the ubiquity of security cameras in many urban centres and transport networks also allows for the monitoring of people and their movement via facial recognition software. In London, the most monitored city in the world, with over 7500 CCTV cameras the average person is photographed over 300 times a day. After being refined again in the first instance by the security services for national security and counter terrorism surveillance, this is now going main-stream in the commercial world. Although the subject of some concerns about privacy, after trailing in Picassa, Google’s Goggle project is bringing facial recognition to a wider audience to search for something on the internet by simply taking a picture of it on a mobile phone.

Privacy campaigners have cautioned that adding facial recognition to Goggles allows users to track strangers through a photograph, making it into an ideal tool for stalkers and identity fraudsters. But as other companies, such as Israeli start-up, are also developing face-recognition tools, a global roll out is not far away. Although a privacy invasion backlash is possible in some areas, most see that with more customer focused applications coming on-line every day providing new information to all, consumer resistance will be marginal.

Looking to 2020 we can therefore see a world where, whether we want it or not, and whether we seek to avoid it or not, we are no longer just monitored by border control when we leave and enter countries but are constantly tracked for both security and commercial applications. Pervasive people tracking will fast become the norm in most regions.

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