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Originally published December 8, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified December 9, 2013 at 10:32 AM

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Access to NSA phone tracking might spur some great ideas

The government cellphone spying scandal could be an opportunity in disguise for tech innovations and useful new services for the public.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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Novel Idea Brier, but hell no! We know that if this data continues to be collected on t... MORE
Just go ahead and get chipped with a GPS device Dudley. You've obviously made peace... MORE
"....so maybe it’s time to make lemonade from lemons..." You're... MORE

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Perhaps it’s time to look at the NSA spying scandal from another angle, now that we know the agency is tracking hundreds of millions of cellphones, slurping up 5 billion phone records a day.

Yes, it’s an outrage. But maybe it’s also an opportunity.

Tech companies do similar things with phones to track their high-value targets. They probably use comparable technology to gather, monitor and analyze vast amounts of location data, then use it to bomb customers with ultraprecise and timely ads and services.

The general idea is that you can figure out what people are up to — the “who, what, when, where and why” — by triangulating location data exposed by their phones and the interests and relationships they’ve shared online.

It was only a matter of time before spies got on this “local-mobile-social” bandwagon.

Meanwhile, the private sector is charging ahead.

Just after the latest National Security Agency story broke in The Washington Post last week, Apple launched its “iBeacon” service, which tracks customers’ locations indoors when they move out of range of GPS satellites.

When you enter a store, iBeacon can guide you toward a particular product or deliver a coupon for the gadget on the table next to you.

This is presented as a notification service, but on the back end it’s gathering ever more data about users’ locations. No wonder Google, Microsoft and Yahoo badger you to link a mobile-phone number with your online accounts.

Some of the latest phones go a step further and use fingerprints to confirm who is using a particular device. Others use eye-tracking and link to biometric devices that monitor your physical state.

Really, it’s hard to get away from this sort of thing, so maybe it’s time to make lemonade from lemons.

Instead of letting petabytes of valuable user data molder away in the NSA’s secret bunkers, we could figure out ways to repurpose the information and help pay for the agency’s supercomputers.

I’m just running with the approach that President Obama — the guy in charge of the NSA — laid out in an executive memo last May. It outlined his “open data policy” directing agencies to be more transparent and share more of their information.

“Making information resources accessible, discoverable and usable by the public can help fuel entrepreneurship, innovation and scientific discovery — all of which improve Americans’ lives and contribute significantly to job creation,” Obama wrote.

As an example, he described valuable applications and services that have been built since the government made its GPS system freely available.

Don’t forget that GPS was also once a secretive defense system — just like the Internet — before the military let companies use its satellites to guide customers to the nearest Starbucks.

Imagine what could be done if the NSA developed products from its phone-tracking system, or at least exposed the data with programming interfaces, to unleash the creativity of the private sector.

It could start with simple things, like offering a lower-priced alternative to AT&T’s “FamilyMap” service, which charges $10 per month to provide real-time tracking and mapping of children’s phone locations.

Why should taxpayers have to pay $10 a month to access data sitting in a government file cabinet?

Divorce lawyers would probably pay $10,000 a month to access the NSA tracking data if it were available through the Data.gov portal that Obama launched in 2009, or via a research service like LexisNexis.

Access could also improve the lives of ordinary citizens. Why should we take numbers and wait in lines to get new tabs at vehicle-licensing offices? If the government knows who and where we are, through the phone that’s bound to our credit cards, it should use wireless printers that spit out our tabs as we enter the office.

Honestly, we’re more likely to be hurt by a drunken driver tooling around with a suspended license than by a misfit in North Africa dumb enough to plot attacks with a cellphone. If we must use wireless dragnets to track bad guys, why not kill two birds with one stone?

Identity theft should be a thing of the past. Victims shouldn’t have to file police reports and haggle with credit agencies over whether they were buying $4,500 worth of car stereos in Chicago last Tuesday when they were actually buying $4 worth of orange juice at a Safeway in Tacoma. The NSA can prove it in a blink, and is probably tracking that guy using a victim’s identity in Chicago.

If this is all too much, the feds have other options. They already have some ideas for sorting out this privacy mess.

The day after the NSA phone-tracking story broke, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) announced a crackdown on an app developer in Moscow, Idaho, for doing something similar.

Goldenshores Technologies had surreptitiously collected geolocation information about people who used its “Brightest Flashlight Free” app on Android phones, then shared the information with advertisers, the FTC said.

Lots of companies gather and exploit this kind of data, but Goldenshores was busted because it was being secretive and not transparent.

“When consumers are given a real, informed choice, they can decide for themselves whether the benefit of a service is worth the information they must share to use it,” Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a news release. “But this flashlight app left them in the dark about how their information was going to be used.”

Goldenshores was ordered to clearly and prominently disclose when it’s collecting and transmitting geolocation information, explain why the information is gathered and identify which organizations will receive the data.

Data held currently must be deleted, and Goldenshores must keep its books open to regulators under a consent order for the next five years.

That seems like a reasonable approach to take with organizations that are sneakily gathering location information transmitted by our phones.

Either that or just say uncle and daydream about crazy ways to use all the data the government’s gathering on our behalf.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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