PlaceMe: A Privacy Wake-up Call

Placeme Android List ViewBy Doug Miller

I read a post on Google+ by Robert Scoble today regarding a new mobile app technology called PlaceMe from Alohar Mobile. This app installs on an iPhone or Android device and basically tracks your every movement – literally. Using the built-in sensors in the mobile device, this app can track where you are, how fast you are moving, etc. and from this can build up a very accurate profile of your movements through out the day.

According to Scoble, the app “studies all the sensors in your phone. Temperature. Compass. Gyroscope. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth antennas. Accelerometer. It collects all that data and uploads it to his servers.” From there it can predict things like:

1. Where you live.
2. Where you work.
3. Your route to work (it can tell you’re driving).
4. What church you go to, or if you go at all.
5. What strip club you go to and just how excited you are (seriously!)
6. What gas station you stop at. It also knows how many miles you have to drive before you have to get more gas.
7. Whether you are walking or running or just standing still.
8. Whether you just got in a car wreck.
9. What your favorite restaurants are and what kind of food you both like and hate.
10. What kinds of things are you likely to have bought inside stores, or at least the departments you visited.

In his words, “everyone should watch this video to see what the future will look like once you cross the freaky line.”

What this app really highlights for me is just how powerful our mobile devices are as full-experience surveillance devices. It is probably fine to take the step to research this app and its privacy policy and make a decision whether to install it or not. But what is really creepy about this is that it raises questions about apps that are on your phone or tablet that do many of these functions without your permission.

Imagine an app like this installed on a business or government user’s phone tracking their every movement. Or a hidden app on your preteen’s phone watching where they go throughout the day. A very scary thought.

But back to PlaceMe. The inventors of the app believe they are delivering real value to the end user by tracking their every step and allowing the user to see where and what they have been doing each day. But in reality, by gathering this type of information on their servers, there are two huge areas of concern these types of apps raise for me:

  1. Is the information really being collected only for our use or is the information being mined, shared or sold for other purposes beyond what we think is reasonable? And…
  2. Have the companies who have developed these types of apps secured their servers in a way that minimizes the possibility of a malicious insider or outside hacker from gaining access to this information?

We had better hope that the answer to both questions is YES.

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