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Sold my Soul

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My soul is now officially sold to Google since I signed up for Google Now on my Nexus 4. The terms and conditions initially scared me to death. Long story short: you sell your soul and give up the last shreds of privacy you might have had. I can only hope this data trail will never be used against me for nefarious purposes.

So how does it work and what do you gain in exchange for your soul? The price to pay is to leave your GPS constantly switched on. Your phone is also constantly listening to incoming Wi-Fi Access Points, even if you are not connected or trying to attach to one. This eats up your battery even faster than usual, but I could not spend a complete day without charging at least once anyway so this does not change much. What you gain is instant positioning no matter where you are. If you feel lost in a city (happens to me quite a lot), just switch on Google Maps and get an immediate fix. Coupled with contextual search, it means you can whip up your phone, whisper “bakery”, and get directions for the nearest one in less than a second. Nice.

What makes Google Now even nicer is the long list of heuristics they have attached to these data. With just a one-day data set, you can tell where I live and where I work since I repeatedly spend night-time without moving and day-time at work, moving a bit. You could also tell which are my favourite restaurants at work and how often I visit them. You can tell where I shop during the weekends, or how often I go get my kids at school. You could also track customers and partners I have business with, and know how often I go through interviews with headhunters to find another job. But I digress.

The Google guys have attached events to your presence in various locations and take advantage of this to offer you some advice. Let me give two examples:

Friend of mine has a guitar course on Wednesdays at 7pm. He usually takes a train to work but the guitar course is a bit off-center so he takes his car. One week after switching on Google Now, he got a message the second Wednesday around 6.30pm to warn him that with the current traffic conditions, he should leave now to be on time for his 7pm appointment.

I was on a trip to San Francisco last month. Two hours before my scheduled departure time, my phone rings an alarm telling me I should go now to be on time, together with traffic conditions and directions to the airport. Even better: on my first day there I slept in a hotel and went to work the next morning around 9am. The next day, I get an alarm from Google Now around 8.30am telling me that if I want to go to the same address as yesterday, I should leave now because of the traffic on I110. I was a bit dazed and looked at my phone with a large WTF across my face.

From your speed, Google Now also knows if you are walking, cycling, in a bus, in a train, on a plane, or in a car. At the end of each month you get a summary about how much you walked and cycled, which is a nice touch when you try to loose some weight. Next step would be to connect it to the device I stick on my chest when running so that I know exactly how many calories I loose per session.

Google Now is also connected to various city transportation sites. When you get close to a station, it automatically displays the time tables for the next coming buses or trains. It does not work with tramways in Paris but I was told subway and buses should be Ok.

When traveling abroad you get a card showing the time it is at home, another one providing exchange rates, and yet another one offering translations to local languages. As I was in London last week, the whole interface switched to a London theme, complete with Big Ben and Eye of London. That was a fun touch!

This is incredibly useful but also totally scary. It means my private data are stored somewhere in Google’s centers. What protects it for now is the fact that millions of people are tracked in the same way and I have no reason to appear as anybody special. What scares me is how these data could be one day used against me for whatever reason. Imagine a European dictatorship deciding that anybody who worked in the Bay Area is a potential terrorist, or simply a competitor who would like to know which companies I have visited there. Collecting data is harmless. The danger comes from who uses it and for which purpose, and I have absolutely no control over who accesses my data and what they want from it.

Once you get past these privacy points you do enjoy these location-based services. Even if these are just frivolous for now, I cannot help but think of a recent time when I did not have a frivolous smartphone either. Who can tell what these will bring us next?

Written by nicolas314

Sunday 12 May 2013 at 1:10 am

Posted in android, google, mobile

Tagged with , ,

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