Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Early Indications August 2010: Rethinking Location and Identity

Even though they're sometimes overlooked in relation to spectacular
growth rates (50x increases in wireless data carriage), successful
consumer applications (half a billion Facebook users), and technical
achievement (at Google, Amazon, Apple, and elsewhere), location-based
technologies deserve more attention than they typically receive. The
many possible combinations of wired Internet, wireless data, vivid
displays, well-tuned algorithms running on powerful hardware, vast
quantities of data, and new monetization models, when combined with
location awareness, have yet to be well understood.

Digital location-based services arose roughly in chronological
parallel with the commercial Internet. In 1996, GM introduced the
OnStar navigation and assistance service in high-end automobiles.
Uses of Global Positioning System (GPS, which, like the Internet, was
a U.S. military invention) and related technologies have exploded in
the intervening years, in the automotive sector and, more recently, on
smartphones. The widespread use of Google Earth in television is
another indicator of the underlying trend.

Handheld GPS units continue to double in sales every year or two in
the North American market. As the technology is integrated into
mobile phones, the social networking market is expected to drive far
wider adoption. Foursquare, Gowalla, numerous other startups, and the
telecom carriers are expected to deliver more and more applications
linking "who," "where," and "when." Powerful indications of this
tendency came when Nokia bought Navteq (the "Intel inside" of many
online mapping applications) for $8.1 billion in 2007, when Facebook
integrated location services in 2010, and when the rapid adoption of
the iPhone and other smartphones amplified the market opportunity
dramatically. Location-based services (whether Skyhook geolocation,
Google Maps and Earth, GPS, and others) have evolved to become a
series of platforms on which specific applications can build, tapping
the market's creativity and vast quantities of data.

In the process, the evolution of location taps into significant questions:

-Who am I in relation to where I am? That is, what are the
implications of mapping for identity management?

-Who knows where I am, when I'm there, and where I've been? How much
do I control the "information exhaust" related to my movements? Who
is liable for any harm that may come to me based on the release of my
identity and location?

-Who are we relative to where we are? In other words, how do social
networks change as they migrate back and forth between virtual space
(Facebook) and real space (Mo's Bar)? What happens as the two worlds

Variations on a Theme

While location often seems to be synonymous with GPS, location-based
data services actually come in a variety of packages. Some examples

-Indoor Positioning Systems
For all of the utility of GPS, there are numerous scenarios where it
doesn't work: mobile x-ray machines or patient gurneys in hospitals,
people in burning buildings, work-in-process inventory, and
specialized measurement or other tools in a lab or factory all need to
be located in sometimes vast and often challenging landscapes,
sometimes within minutes. GPS signals may not penetrate the building,
and even if they can, the object of interest must "report back" to
those responsible for it. A variety of wired and wireless
technologies can be used to create what is in essence a scaled-down
version of the GPS environment.

Such well known firms as Leica and Nikon have professional products to
track minute movements in often massive structures or bodies: dams,
glaciers, bridges. Any discussion of location awareness that neglects
the powerful role of precision optics, beginning with the essential
surveyor's transit, would be incomplete.

-WiFi mapping
As we have seen, the worldwide rise of wi-fi networking is very much a
bottom-up phenomenon. Two consequences of that mode of installation
are, first, often lax network security and second, considerable
coverage overspill. Driving down any suburban or metropolitan street
with even a basic wireless device reveals dozens of residential or
commercial networks. Such firms as Google have systematically mapped
those networks, resulting in yet another overlay onto a growing number
of triangulation points. The privacy implications of such mapping
have yet to be resolved.

Wireless carriers can determine the position of an active (powered-up)
device through triangulation with the customer's nearby towers. Such
an approach lacks precision when compared to approaches (most notably
GPS) that reside on the handset rather than in the network. In either
case, the carrier can establish historical location for law
enforcement and potentially other purposes.

A startup based in Boston, Skyhook has built a database of 100 million
wi-fi physical coordinates then added both GPS and cellular
components, making Skyhook most precise (inside or near buildings)
where GPS is weakest. A software solution combines all available
information to create location-tracking for any wi-fi enabled device,
indoors or out. Skyhook powers location awareness for devices from
Apple, Dell, Samsung, and other companies, and is now generating
secondary data based on those devices.


Noting a few historic transitions and innovations in the history of
location-based services reveals the scale, complexity, and wide
variety of applications that the core technologies are powering.

With roughly 5.5 million subscribers in mid-2010, OnStar has become
the world's largest remote vehicle-assistance service. In addition to
receiving navigation and roadside assistance, subscribers can have
doors unlocked and gain access to certain diagnostic data related to
that particular vehicle. The service delivers important information
to emergency response personnel: when extricating occupants from a
damaged vehicle, knowing which airbags have deployed can assist in
keeping EMTs, police, and firefighters safe from the explosive force
of an undeployed device that might be inadvertently tripped. Knowing
the type and severity of the crash before arrival on the scene can
also help the teams prepare for the level of damage and injury they
are likely to encounter.

The service was launched as a joint venture. General Motors brought
the vehicle platform and associated engineering, Hughes Electronics
managed the satellite and communications aspects, and Electronic Data
Systems, itself being spun out from GM in OnStar's launch year,
performed systems integration and information management.

The history of GPS is even more compelling when considered alongside
its nearly contemporary stable mate, the Internet. GPS originated in
1973, ARPANET in 1969. Ronald Reagan allowed GPS to be used for
civilian purposes after a 1983 incident involving a Korean Air Lines
plane that strayed into Soviet airspace. The Internet was handed off
from the National Science Foundation to commercial use in 1995; Bill
Clinton ordered fully accurate GPS (20 meter resolution) to be made
available May 1, 2000. Previously, the military had access to the
most accurate signals while "Selective Availability" (300 meter
resolution) was delivered to civilian applications.

Since 1990, GPS has spread to a wide variety of uses: recreational
hiking and boating, commercial marine navigation, cell phone
geolocation, certain aircraft systems, and of course vehicle
navigation. Heavy mining and farming equipment can be steered to less
than 1" tolerances. Vehicles (particularly fleets) and even animals
can be "geofenced," with instant notification if the transmitter
leaves a designated area. In addition to latitude and longitude, GPS
delivers highly precise time services as well as altitude.

Founded by Charles Trimble and two colleagues from Hewlett-Packard in
1978 (the first year a GPS satellite was launched), Trimble Navigation
has become an essential part of geolocation history. From its base in
Silicon Valley, the company has amassed a portfolio of more than 800
patents and offers more than 500 products. Much like Cisco, Trimble
has made acquisition of smaller companies a core competency, with many
M&A moves in the past ten years in particular. A measure of Trimble's
respect in the industry can be seen in the quality of its
joint-venture partners: both Caterpillar and Nikon have gone to market
jointly with Trimble.

The company has a long history of "firsts": the first commercial
scientific-research and geodectic-survey products based on GPS for
oil-drilling teams on offshore platforms, the first GPS unit taken
aboard the space shuttle, the first circuit board combining GPS and
cellular communications. The reach of GPS can be seen in the variety
of Trimble's product offerings: agriculture, engineering and
construction, federal government, field and mobile worker (including
both public safety and utilities applications), and advanced devices,
the latter indicating a significant commitment to R&D.

Location, Mobility, and Identity

Issues of electronic identity and mobility have been playing out in
quiet but important ways. Each of several instances is a classic case
of social or economic problems being tangled up with a technology
challenge. To see only one side of the question is to create the
possibility of unintended consequences, allow hidden agendas into
play, and generally confuse the allocation of sometimes-scarce

-Social Networking Goes Local
Whether through Dodgeball, (a New York startup that was bought by
Google in 2005 then left unexploited), Foursquare, or Facebook Places,
the potential for the combination of virtual and real people in
virtual or real places is still being explored. Viewed in
retrospect, the course of the Dodgeball acquisition raises the revenue
questions familiar to watchers of Friendster et al: who will pay for
what, and who collects, by what mechanism? Who owns my location
information and what aspects of it do I control? Much like my medical
records, which are not mine but rather the doctor's or hospital's,
control appears to be defaulting to the collector rather than the
generator of digital bread crumbs.

-The Breakdown of 911
After a series of implementations beginning in 1968, Americans on
wireline voice connections could reliably dial the same three-digit
emergency number anywhere in the country. As the Bell System of the
twentieth century fades farther and farther from view, the presumption
of 911 reliability declines proportionately with the old business
model even as demand increases: the U.S. generates about 12 million
calls a day to 911. The problem comes in two variants.

First, a number of Voice over IP customers with life-threatening --
and as it turned out, life-ending -- emergencies could only reach a
recording at Vonage saying to call 911 from another phone. The Texas
Attorney General is raising the question after a 911 call failed
during a home invasion in Houston. A baby's death in Florida was
blamed on a Vonage 911 failure. According to the Wall Street Journal,
"In a letter to Florida's Attorney General, [the mother] said the
Vonage customer-service representative laughed when she told her that
Julia had died. 'She laughed and stated that they were unable to
revive a baby'. . . ."

For their part, Vonage includes bold-print instructions for manual 911
mapping during the sign-up process, but it's been estimated that up to
a quarter of the U.S. population is functionally illiterate. One
feature of VoIP is its portability: plug the phone into an RJ45 jack
anywhere and receive calls at a virtual area code of the customer's
choice. Navigating firewalls, dynamic IP addresses, wireless
connections, and frequent network outages taxes anyone but the most
technically adept Internet user. Children are also a key 911
constituency. Taken collectively, these overlapping populations raise
dozens of tricky questions. At the infrastructure level, the FCC and
other agencies face the substantial challenge of determining the
fairest, safest set of technical interconnection requirements
incumbent on the Regional Bells and VoIP carriers.

From the Bell perspective, 911 obviously costs money to implement and
maintain, and declining wireline revenues translate to declining 911
funds. Connecting 911 to the Internet in a reliable, secure manner is
nontrivial -- network attacks have used modems to target the service
in the past -- and until contractual arrangements are finalized there
is reluctance to subsidize the same firms that present themselves as
full wireline replacements.

911 isn't just a VoIP problem either: cellular users represent nearly
75% of emergency callers, but math and economics conspire to make
finding them difficult or impossible. In rural areas, cell towers
often follow roads, so attempting to triangulate from three points in
a straight line can limit precision. States have raided 911 tax
revenues for budget relief.

-Cell phone tracking
The wireless carriers offer a variety of services that give a relative
(often a parent, or an adult child of a potentially confused elder)
location information generated by a phone. the service has also been
used to help stalkers and abusive spouses find their wives in hiding.
Women's shelters routinely strip out the tracking component of cell
phones; according to the Wall Street Journal, a Justice Department
report in 2009 estimated that 25,000 adults in the U.S. were victims
of GPS stalking every year. In addition to the carriers, tracking
capability is being developed by sophisticated PC users that spoof the
behavior of a cell tower. Keystroke and location logging software is
also available; one package, called MobileSpy, costs under $100 per


As the telephone system migrates from being dominated by fixed lines,
where identity resided in the phone, to mobile usage, where identity
typically relates to an individual, location is turning out to matter
a lot. Mobile number portability was an unexpectedly popular mandate
a few years ago, and the fastest technology adoption in history was a
phone feature: 55 million people signed up in a matter of months for a
service -- the Federal Do Not Call registry -- that didn't exist when
it was announced. (That's even faster than the previous champ,
Netscape Navigator's zooming to 38 million users in 18 months.) Given
the global nature of some of these questions, not to mention numerous
issues with ICANN and DNS, the discussions and solutions will only get
more complicated. As the examples illustrate, getting social
arrangements to keep pace with technology innovation is if anything
more difficult than the innovation itself.