Geo-Stalking

Plazes

Not too long ago I ran across Plazes and signed up out of curiosity. We do work with a strong geo-spatial element but most of our work relies on GPS. What I thought was interesting about Plazes was that it relies on network signatures to identify location. If you are the first person to log in from a location, it gives you the opportunity to accurately geo-tag the location by either address lookup, manual entry of lat/log, or manual placement on a map. Once that network location has been geo-tagged it becomes visible on a Plazes map and if another Plazes user arrives their accurate location will be broadcast to other users.

I was in NYC last week and I noticed that, even though I hadn’t geo-tagged my location (I was staying with a friend and didn’t particularly want to publicize the address), Plazes was showing me as within a few blocks of my actual location. Presumably they were using the router at the local cable company head end as my location. If I were using a Symbian-based cell device it would be able to place my position frequently as I transited from cell tower to cell tower rather than waiting for me to jack in or connect to a hot spot.

I like Plazes and think of it as a simple way to let my co-workers know which of our many offices I am working in that day so they can find me. As it grows (if it does) it will also be a nice way to find open Wi-Fi hot spots or add a geo-proximity element to social networking. But frankly, it is also a little bit creepy. Even though I can control it I keep wondering if someday I’ll forget to turn it off (it runs an agent on my laptop) when I should. It is bad enough to get “mapped” in Second Life, but services like this make it possible (and likely) in the real world too. Will there come a day when I’m in a coffee shop and the sales guy that has been calling me just happens to show up at the next table?

In a different but related development, Web-Ex has started providing an “activity map” that shows where their current users are in the real world based on the same type of network-signature-based locating. Companies such as Quova are providing this new “IP Intelligence” technology for their customers in a number of industries. Think of it as geo-tagged caller id (or Plazes with no on-machine agent required) that can be used for fraud identification, regional content customization, and other uses where reasonably accurate geography is important. The location data is derived from the originating IP address of every HTTP Get to a Quova-enabled web site.

Sounds pretty good except for that the fact that most users probably have no idea that they are being geo-located. I doubt it is even buried in the privacy policy of the sites that use it.

Since Plazes relies on an agent that I control I can turn it off at any time. However, Quova only needs you to hit a web site that they are providing the service for. What happens if they take off and are providing that service for many of the high traffic web sites on the web? They are then in the position to broadly aggregate position data on huge numbers of people without the individual’s knowledge. I already carry a cell phone that generates a large number of cell hop records in a telecom database. I use EZ Pass so the DoT knows where I drive a disturbing amount of time (and how fast I go). Services like Quova can fill in all the gaps in between to the point where being connected means being located.

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