11 May 2020

To Beacon or Not to Beacon – Privacy is the Question

Location, location, location — location tracking, location data, location uses and when to use it — when discussing location, the debate heats up quickly. A few initial positions you may have heard (or even espouse):

  1. Tracking location is an invasion of privacy
  2. We can get accurate location from WiFi or GPS
  3. Smartphones are ubiquitous–we can derive location from them
  4. Facial recognition is the future
  5. Wearables are expensive

There are certainly more opinions, but these represent a core set of positions. As discussed in the previous entry, Location is not a “Sometimes” thing, the privacy aspect listed above is a complicated discussion when taken in total. For us, however, we get to apportion it to scenarios and that is where the discussion becomes far more simple. Location will always be divisive, but specific use cases can provide a great deal of context, and context is key. So, let’s use that key to unlock some of the typical concerns around location tracking and privacy as it relates to an explicit exchange of trust when entering a private space.

Tracking location is an invasion of privacy

Is it, though? While certainly not a lawyer, I am a consumer. I am also a huge proponent of privacy and hate the concept of being watched indiscriminately. You have likely heard the quote:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – Benjamin Franklin

Now for the backstory on why that quote is so often used, often misused and was propped up, I encourage you to read this TechCrunch article on the history behind Ben Franklin’s quote and take a gander at this NPR interview on the quote’s context in the 21st century.

(TL;DR*–the original quote was in reference to the government’s ability to levy taxes for defense spending. So, while the quote has been re-appropriated over and over to technology and security issues because it has been convenient to do so, Ben Franklin was not waxing philosophically about future Orwellian scenarios. Context is key!)

(*Editor’s note: Derek Fournier most certainly did not use the common internet phrase TL;DR meaning “too long, didn’t read” as a way to briefly sum up the linked articles–the editor did.)

All that being said, people rightly get a little uncomfortable with the thought of Big Brother watching over them. When you head out to Coconut Grove or Ybor City, you have a fair expectation that your travels are your own business as you are (I assume) not a person of interest in surveillance by law enforcement. Your assumption is that you are in a public space and therefore are due a shroud of anonymity.

This is where it gets interesting.

That is an implicit understanding (and a safe one, I feel). However, when you make the explicit choice to enter a private space, you are also entering into a sort of social contract. Take, for example–and to get back to the topic of location tracking being an invasion of privacy after my liberal diatribe into quotation origins–the decision to book a cruise vacation for your family. This is an exciting and expensive endeavor. There is also an element of safety as you will most likely be traveling out of country and require legal documents and some preparation. What many do not consider is the heavy and very real responsibility that the ship’s crew has toward your safety, security and health. You will be in their care for the duration of your voyage and their “Duty of Care” extends far beyond making best efforts. To that end, there are drills and guidelines, medical procedures and cleaning protocols not to mention (on most vessels) entire medical, security and safety teams whose job it is to make sure you and your family are safe and sound. They have this responsibility and the added expectation that they remain ever-present but nearly-invisible while you blissfully enjoy the turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean or explore the breathtaking vistas of Glacier Bay.

You are their guests and they are there to ensure you can focus on the fun. You explicitly trust them to do their job in these capacities. That explicit exchange of trust when one buys a ticket and boards a cruise, not dissimilar from the explicit decision to come on private property like a resort, attraction or school, creates a unique environment where we can exchange some of our privacy (note, I said some of) to better empower those caring for us to make sure we are safe. It is not invasion if you grant the proper authorities the ability, when the time is right (think during an emergency) to know where you are on a ship in order to send a team to provide assistance. More recently a hot topic, similar tools can be leveraged to proactively help monitor health during your time onboard. In the unlikely event you are ill, the medical team is empowered to proactively assess possible spread to other guests or crew as well as to strategically deploy enhanced cleaning protocols to help safeguard all of your shipmates.

This explicit exchange of trust model is not limited to cruise and other leisure activities. Think schools. Think hospitals. Think government buildings.

You see, the devil is, as always, in the details. Context is key. Being part of the plan to keep yourself safe and empower the crew with proper tools can be seen as a true and required benefit when bound by an explicit exchange of trust. It is on all of us to make sure that trust is respected to provide enhanced safety, security and health monitoring first and foremost while we work toward the more fun aspects of location and proximity.

In the list that started this chat, a few other assertions were made about using WiFi for location and methods other than wearables. In the next installment, I will discuss the leading methods for location discernment, cover the pros and cons of each from my perspective and explain why some things are considered an expensive cost and others are seen as an investment (spoiler! I am referring to wearables).

Stay safe and talk to you soon.


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