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Russell Wangersky: Remember, you are being tracked


Published on July 28, 2017

iRobot’s Rhoomba robot vacuum cleaner collects information and develops a map of your house as it wanders around.

©Andrey Popov

Who says the unexamined life isn’t worth living?

Well, Socrates, actually.

But that may actually be moot.

Soon, the unexamined life might well be impossible.

Russell Wangersky
File photo

It’s a truism to point out that helpful tools that keep track of your movements don’t always work in your favour; that if you have location services activated on your phone, your movements can be used against you in a court of law. Worse still, if you’re carrying a company phone and you have location services activated, your company can see if you are telling the truth when you call in sick by checking your phone to see if it makes a trip to a nearby beach. They own the phone and the data you’ve helpfully collected for them.

Your car, if it’s new enough, already tracks the five minutes or so before an accident, and police can download your speed, how long before you hit the brakes, and a host of other information from your vehicle’s computer module.

In Ohio a week or so ago, a judge allowed data from a pacemaker to be entered into evidence, when it showed that a man’s version of what happened during a fire at his house was incompatible with his heart rate at the time of the fire.

There are other, scarier collections of information: iRobot’s Rhoomba robot vacuum cleaner collects information and develops a map of your house as it wanders around, a map that iRobot wants to sell to mega-information collectors like Google and Apple.

Here’s Colin Angle, chief executive of iRobot, talking to Reuters news service: “There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared,” said Angle.

I’m not sure I want an ecosystem of my house’s “rich map” done by my vacuum.

There are concerns that some smart televisions are too smart for their own good — smart enough to listen in on, and transmit, conversations that take place in front of them.

Customer loyalty cards, at least those with radio-frequency identification chips (RFID), can track you around your favourite drug store, collecting information not only about what you buy, but how long you spend in different parts of the store and what displays catch your eye.

Now, a Wisconsin company is taking that even further: the vending machine company Three Two Market wants to implant RFID chips literally in their workers, with the grain-of-rice-sized chip inserted under the skin between thumb and forefinger. (Being “chipped” is voluntary with the company at this point, but honestly — privacy erodes as soon as the door is opened.)

The idea? To let employees log in to computers or do things like buy snacks without having to use passwords and the like. Theoretically, though, it could also become an always-watching remote boss; how long did you sit down for? How long were you in the break room? How many smoke breaks did you take? Were you really working in the storeroom?

In a statement, Three Two Market CEO Todd Westby predicted the technology could become popular among companies. “Eventually, this technology will become standardized allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc.,” he told Reuters.

Sure — and while you use it as your passport, it might well track your footsteps, your purchases, when you are home, and when you’re away.

Here’s a closing thought. If a little information can be a dangerous thing, what exactly can all of your information be?

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.