Tracking apps could 'undermine trust'

Friday, 11 June 2010 Anna Salleh ABC

Technology like Google Latitude enables people to track their friends, relatives and even partners in real time (Source: ABC News)

New social networking technologies that enable people to track each other's location are challenging everyday notions of trust, says one information technology researcher.

PhD researcher Roba Abbas from the University of Wollongong is presenting her research on "location based social networking" at two conferences this week.

"There are fundamental trust issues where this technology is concerned," says Abbas.

Applications such as Google Latitude and Foursquare are examples of such tracking technology, which can be used on a mobile phone.

It allows people to monitor the location of their partners, friends, relatives and others in real time on an interactive map.

In a focus group study, to be presented to the 9th International Conference on Mobile Business in Greece this week, Abbas found the majority of participants would not adopt the tracking technology.

Participants were concerned about such things as the potential for unwanted surveillance, invasion of privacy, and the ability of the technology to undermine trust in relationships.

A separate pilot study, involving 20 to 25-year-olds asked to carry commercially-available GPS data loggers, revealed some of the scenarios that might arise.

"While the data logging devices were initially perceived as a novelty by participants, significant concerns emerged after further consideration and extensive utilisation of the devices," says Abbas.

Keeping track of loved ones

In the pilot study, participants were interviewed after a period of carrying the GPS devices with them wherever they went, keeping a manual diary of their location and observing the difference.

In some cases, people thought tracking technology could be useful for providing evidence to a partner on their whereabouts.

"Today I was supposed to finish work at 9, but being Easter I didn't get out until 10. When I got to my boyfriend's house he questioned me about where I'd been," said one participant.

"I was able to say 'check the [device] if you don't believe me'. I then realised that in a situation where you had to prove you had been somewhere, the [device] could be used as evidence."

One participant also thought a small version of the device could be used to covertly collect evidence against a potentially guilty partner.

But participants became worried when they discovered the loggers were not always accurate, sometimes recording their location a street away from where they actually were.

Abbas says they were uneasy about the possibility of inaccurate location information being used against someone.

Another participant said, "The [device] has the potential to ruin people's lives because it has the potential to give an incorrect location. For example, if a husband were to track his wife's car, she may have gone shopping, but it's showing the location of the car in the street next to the shopping centre, this could cause many trust issues to arise unnecessarily."

Abbas' research has also found concerns about the ability of people to tamper with the tracking technology and "lie" about where they are.

Human trust

Accuracy aside, people were concerned about the potential for the technology to erode trust among friends and family, says Abbas, who presented the pilot study results at this week's IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society conference in Wollongong.

"You're working towards trusting a technology rather than trusting someone you're in a relationship with," she says.

Abbas says while technological solutions such as privacy settings that allow one to hide locations would go some way to alleviating some concerns, human trust issues are difficult to account for.

"These devices provide you with information on where someone is but it doesn't provide you with information on why they're there and what they're doing," she says.

"It doesn't actually tell you what a person's motives are."

She says this means "inferences and misrepresentations" can be easily made by users.

Abbas PhD research is being supervised by Dr Katina Michael and funded by the UOW and the Australian Research Council.

She says information from her research will be provided to industry to help in the development of "ethically sound location based services".

Tags: information-and-communication, computers-and-technology, social-sciences, relationships

Citation: Anna Salleh, June 11, 2010, "Tracking apps could 'undermine trust'", ABC Science Onlinehttp://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/06/11/2922784.htm

Cyborgs walk among us

Cyborgs walk among us

Higher education Conference

A university conference is tackling the big issues of technology and features speakers who have devices implanted under their skin, writes BENJAMIN LONG.

Program chair Associate Professor Katina Michael is expecting plenty of robust debate at the 2010 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society this week at the University of Wollongong.

The multidisciplinary conference, which closes tomorrow (with a further workshop being held on Thursday), has attracted the world's leading experts in the area of new technology and its social impacts.

"What is fresh about this conference is that it is bringing people from different disciplines to discuss the same subject matter from different angles" says Dr Michael, a senior lecturer in the School of Information Technology and Computer Science at UOW.

"There should be a clash of sorts, because I don't think everyone will agree with what is being put forward.

The conference is looking at issues related to cyborg technology, microchip implants, nanotechnology and social networking

"We've got information and communication technology specialists. We've got applied ethics researchers. We've got political scientists. We've got lawyers talking about regulation and legislation of emerging technology such as nanotechnology.

"We've also got commercial entities that have invested heavily, for example, in GPS innovations. We've even got a theologian talking.

"It's not just engineering focussed or humanities focussed. It's going to create a lot of dialogue between those who conceive, those who implement and those who eventually critique the technology."

More than 100 speakers from 17 different countries will address the conference, and 70 academic papers will be presented.

It is the first time the symposium has been held in Australia, says Dr Michael, who has been working on it since UOW was awarded the hosting rights in 2007.

Speakers are looking at emerging technologies in four broad categories - location-based services, social networking, nanotechnology and automatic identification - and looking in particular at issues of security, privacy and human rights.

A number of the keynote speakers are addressing issues around implantable devices.

Professor Rafael Capurro of the Steinbeis-Transfer-Institute Information Ethics, Germany, is a leading ethicist in this area. He has been writing about these issues, says Dr Michael, since a time when "most other people were thinking this was the stuff of conspiracy theory".

Prof Capurro writes that while "ICT (information and communication technology) implants may be used to repair deficient bodily capabilities they can also be misused, particularly if these devices are accessible via digital networks. The idea of letting ICT devices get under our skin in order not just to repair but even to enhance human capabilities gives rise to science fiction visions".

Dr Mark Gasson, a senior research fellow in the Cybernetic Intelligence Research Group at the University of Reading, in the United Kingdom, has an engineering background and looks at implants from a different angle.

In particular he is interested in implantable RFID (radio-frequency identification) devices, which have evolved to the point where they can be considered simple computers.

Dr Gasson recently became "the world's first human infected with a computer virus" when he had a chip implanted in his hand and then infected with a computer virus.

Taking a more idiosyncratic approach is another keynote speaker, Amal Graafstra, who is not an academic but rather an RFID implant enthusiast from the United States.

The owner of several technology and mobile communications companies, Graafstra has two RFIDs implanted in his body which do things like allowing him keyless access to his home and car.

Another of the keynote speakers, Dr Roger Clarke, a consultant on eBusiness, information infrastructure, and dataveillance and privacy, and a Visiting Professor at the School of Computer Science at ANU, addresses the subject of cyborg rights.

"The first generation of cyborgs is alive, well, walking among us, and even running," Dr Clarke argues.

"Pacemakers, clumsy mechanical hands, and renal dialysis machines may not match the movie image of cyborgs, but they have been the leading wave."

He points to the case of South African athlete Oscar Pistorius, a double leg amputee whose prosthetic legs enable him to run faster than most able-bodied people. Pistorius doesn't want to be known as a Paralympian and would rather race against able-bodied athletes. Should he be allowed to run in the Olympics?

Dr Michael hopes that one of the outcomes of the conference is a greater awareness of how technology is affecting our lives.

"Technology can be used for positive means, but it can also be exploited," Dr Michael says.

"It is a great medium to communicate with other people on, but just be aware that even intelligent and street-savvy people can be fooled, and that harm can come from it.

"For example, one of the issues of location-based social networking is that Facebook now has a function that enables you to have a status update, which is automatic and which identifies your location based on where your mobile phone is.

"People can look at that without your knowing - if you've got 400 friends on your friends list - and see that you are in Figtree or you are in Wollongong.

"That might not mean much to people at the moment, but somebody might be able to use that to say, okay, well you're not at home right now so I can go around there and take everything you have. Or they could use it to stalk you.

"We are talking about technology that is not just in the virtual world, but which has repercussions in the physical world."

Citation: Benjamin Long, June 8, 2010, "Cyborgs walk among us", Illawarra Mercury, pp. 1, 23.