Privacy

Big Data analysis applied to retail shopping behavior

Everybody knows that online retailers like Amazon track customer behavior on their website down to every last click and then analyze it to improve their site. But when it comes to regular retail locations collecting detailed customer data by tracking their every move, people seem to be surprised, and sometimes even outraged…

Tracking Shoppers in Retail

It is somewhat ironic that we are used to being tracked online, but when customer tracking - sometimes even based on the very smartphones we carry in our pockets - hits the real world, privacy concerns abound. Interestingly, the same systems have been used for years to prevent theft, and nobody seems to have a problem with that. But once Big Data gets collected and is analyzed for more than just theft prevention and is utilized to analyze shopping behavior and improve store layouts, things get a bit murky on the privacy implications.

The NY Times has a nice article about this today, including a video that shows some of the systems in action. Very cool technology is being used from video surveillance to WiFi signal tracking, and I guess this is really just the tip of the iceberg.

It will also be interesting to see how the privacy implications around Google Glass play out in the next couple of months. If the government can track and record everybody and if business can track and record their customers, then why shouldn't ordinary people also be allowed to constantly record and analyze everything happening around them?

When George Orwell coined the phrase "Big Brother is watching you" in his Nineteen Eight-Four novel, the dystopian vision of a government watching our every moves seemed to be the epitome of an oppressive evil. Nowadays, privacy concerns have certainly evolved over the past decade to the point where video cameras on street corners are taken for granted in many democracies and I'm sure we'll see a continued evolution of our understanding of privacy in the years to come.

Additional Coverage: Techmeme, Marketing Land, iMore, Business Insider, The Verge

Bye bye, Instagram

I deleted my Instagram account today due to their new overreaching terms of service that essentially promise to violate my copyright in any photos posted to the service.

The NY Times Bits Technology blog has a good summary of the new terms and their impact on customers, so I won't repeat the detailed analysis here, but it boils down to essentially these huge privacy red-flags:

  1. Instagram can share information about its users with outside affiliates and advertisers
  2. Instagram can use your photos in advertising and promotions without your consent
  3. If you want to opt-out, your only option is to delete your account

Thanks, I went ahead and just did that.

In terms of mobile photo-editing on my smartphone or tablet device I've long preferred using SnapSeed anyway, because it has tons more powerful and customizable features.

For more blog coverage on the new Instagram terms see Techmeme

Ingress - an AR-MMOG created by Niantic Labs at Google

I don't often write about games on my blog, but this one deserves an exception, because it is extremely innovative, unique, and a harbinger of things to come. On November 15 Google launched a closed beta of Ingress, a sci-fi themed game currently available only on the Android platform.

Ingress defines a new category of game that could probably be best described as AR-MMOG (Augmented Reality - Massively Multiplayer Online Game). The basic premise is that an alien influence called Shapers are trying to control human thought and are entering the world through portals that are often associated with historically significant locations, statues, or public displays of arts. These portals are associated with Exotic Matter (called XM in the game) that needs to be collected to energize the player as well as the portals.

Players must move through the real world and visit these portals with their GPS-equipped Android smartphones to play the game.

The objective is to hack the portals, link different portals, and create so-called control fields by forming triangles of linked portals. After completing a few training missions, players must choose a faction and either side with the Resistance, who are trying to protect mankind and prevent further Shaper influence, or side with the Enlightened, who consider Shaper influence to be beneficial and usher in the next logical step in the evolution of mankind.

Enlightened vs. Resistance

I was very happy to receive my invite to the closed beta on November 21 and found some time on the morning of Thanksgiving Day as well as on Black Friday to play the game on my Galaxy SIII. Doing so allowed me to take some extensive walks on both days and burn off a lot of the food calories that would have accumulated otherwise.

Playing the game is extremely addictive. I decided to join the Resistance and explored the available portals in and around Marblehead on the first day. Capturing my first few portals was fairly easy, but then I encountered some Enlightened portals that gave me a good challenge right away. Most of the portals are directly taken from the Historical Marker Database, so you learn a lot more about the history while playing the game. I also found that having a car to drive to neighboring towns and some remote portal locations is a huge bonus - especially when you get to deploy higher-level portals that have a range of several kilometers available for linking.

For example, on one of my excursions I took a stroll through downtown Salem in my quest to capture more portals and found one above the statue of Roger Conant:

Approaching a portal in Salem

By hacking and capturing one portal after the other, I was able to not only collect the required items for linking portals together, but also the necessary weapons for attacking portals of the opposing faction. And it didn't take long for me to eliminate all of the Enlightened influence in my area and connect several of the portals in Marblehead to create the necessary control fields that are then shown on the display of the Ingress app:

Control Fields in Marblehead

As I leveled up, I was able to create more powerful portals that allowed linkages over several kilometers distance and so I used Black Friday for some further excursions into Salem as well as trips to Swampscott and Nahant that allowed me to create a much larger field to protect all the inhabitants in my immediate vicinity:

Larger area control fields

Now it is only a matter of time until the Enlightened students at MIT try to increase their influence further north and will begin their attack on the North Shore. I am sure a battle of epic proportions will ensue in the days to come:

Larger Boston Area Intel

Ingress is extremely well done for a beta version of a game. I can only assume that Google has done some extensive internal testing before opening up the beta to people outside. And the combination of GPS, mapping, the historical marker database, and the many different web properties (see list below) combine to provide a truly addictive game-playing experience.

Even before you get immersed in the actual gameplay - and while you anxiously await the arrival of your invitation to participate in the beta - there are several websites that provide hints at the background story, videos, and artwork by fictions characters that appear to exhibit signs of Shaper influence.

One can easily see how Google's Project Glass will be used in a future version of this game that takes augmented reality game-play to a whole new level…

Obviously, there are also some privacy implications in such kind of gameplay and several bloggers have already questioned Google's motives in creating this game. Allegations range from creating an optimized database of walking paths for further enhancing Google Maps to more sinister data collection for advertising purposes.

Be that as it may, for the time being I will continue participating in the beta for a very simple reason: the game is actually a lot of fun to play!

Further information on Ingress can be found here:

Also see blog posts on AllThingsD, Engadget, pandodaily, The Verge, TechCrunch, and others…

P.S. Don't ask me for an invite, as I don't have any to give away, sorry!

Privacy, geo-location, and over-sharing

There has been plenty of discussion already on privacy settings on Facebook and how our approach to sharing personal information on social networking sites has changed over the years – and I’m not going to repeat any of that. However, the recent growth and considerable hype around geo-location, location-based services, and location-sharing on social networks has taken over-sharing to a whole new level.

Applications like FourSquare and Gowalla, who let users earn badges or awards for checking-in when they visit a restaurant or other location are now often linked to Facebook or Twitter. People post their travel plans on services like Dopplr and TripIt. Facebook itself added the Places feature recently. And Twitter has captured the location of each tweet for quite a while already, provided you use a Twitter app on your GPS-enabled smartphone or allow your browser to determine your location based on your IP address.

Now this all sounds really cool and for a while apps like Foursquare are indeed a novelty and fun to use. In fact, I like to experiment with new things myself and will admit to even becoming the mayor of 25 places on Foursquare, before I quit.

The problem with all of that geo-location information is, of course, that it is more widely available than you would imagine – and sometimes it is even publicly available, e.g. when you connect other geo-location services to Twitter, or when you use the geo-tagging of tweets on Twitter itself. Keep in mind that by default all tweets are public, unless you restrict them to only your followers.

PleaseRobMeConcerns about this issue have been voiced by others before, e.g. the web site PleaseRobMe.com was launched in early 2010 and displayed aggregate information from Twitter and other sources to publicly show when a person was not at home. It was a stunt to draw attention to this problem, and the site no longer shows that info, but it was an effective theoretical experiment.

This experimental threat has now become reality. Last week, police finally caught up with a burglary gang in New Hampshire that had robbed multiple homes this summer, where the homeowners had announced via Facebook that they were not at home, on a vacation, or provided some other information that could be used to infer that the house was going to be empty.

So what about using privacy settings to make sure only your real friends can see this information? That may sound like a good approach at first, but keep in mind that once you share that information with any app or social networking website, it is stored in a database somewhere – and once it is stored somewhere it can be found and abused by someone. In fact, just this week Google fired one of their engineers for stalking teenagers, whose information he had obtained from the kids’ GMail and chat accounts.

solution_thedevice We use GPS ankle-bracelets to track sex offenders and other criminals in our criminal justice system. As a free citizen, why would we voluntarily want to provide anybody with the same tracking information about our personal life and whereabouts?

So here is what I did this weekend to end my own over-sharing of geo-location information:

  • I deleted my FourSquare account and the FourSquare app from my iPhone
  • I deleted my Gowalla account
  • I deleted the Twitter app from my iPhone
  • I changed my Twitter settings to turn off “TweetLocation” and deleted all location information from my past tweets:
    TwitterCapture
  • I deleted the Facebook app from my iPhone
  • I adjusted my Facebook privacy settings to hide all Places information, to not allow others to check me into Places, and to never include me in “People Here Now”. I also tightened down all the other privacy settings to the maximum.
  • I deleted my Dopplr account
  • I decided to no longer post any messages on Twitter or Facebook that would reveal my travel plans (“flying to Las Vegas tomorrow”), current location (“family dinner at Asahi – awesome sushi here”), or my whereabouts (“I’m on the boat”)

And I’m not even sure I got all the places that I may have signed up for in the past, so cleansing my digital tracks and removing all geo-location information and ending past over-sharing will be an ongoing process…