Why You Should Care About Your Mobile Phone’s Location Tracker

Are you reading this blog post on your mobile telephone? If you’re doing so, you can now feel a little more secure about carrying it with you when you leave your home.

Why? Because the four major cell phone networks have decided to stop selling customer location data to third parties. They made this choice in response to the inappropriate corporate behavior of LocationSmart, a data aggregator.

How did LocationSmart mishandle location data? Unfortunately, the four carriers didn’t release detailed information regarding its actions. Nevertheless, LocationSmart’s web site highlights its sale of geofencing services.

A geofence is a virtual sensory field that surrounds a geographic location. When someone approaches the field, his mobile phone “pings” its location to the cellular network without notifying its owner. The data can be instantly communicated to a business that occupies the location, or packaged and then sold to third parties.

A relatively benign service might involve the text messaging of a price discount offer to a mobile phone in order to entice its owner to enter a store within the geofence. A potentially malignant service, though, might involve the compilation and sale of detailed personal profiles of cell phone owners.

The malignancy of a profiling service need not be intentional on the part of the data aggregator. Consider, for instance, the plight of an individual who frequently visits a grocer or restaurant that has recently opened in a building that also houses a cigar shop. A health insurer that purchases the data may (erroneously) flag the individual as a cigar smoker. The individual may never become aware of the sale of his location data, or of his health insurance classification.

The recent decision of the four cell phone networks removes one path to such an outcome. But if individuals continue to download and install applications without reading the fine print in their Terms and Conditions, they may provide data aggregators with new paths to the same undesirable outcome.

Apple’s Differential Privacy

Business executives at Apple have always been somewhat ambivalent about the issue of customer privacy. On the one hand, they routinely claim that they maintain a much higher standard of confidentiality towards their user data than many other technology firms. And yet, on the other hand, artificial intelligence programs like Siri cannot learn the preferences of their users without accessing such personal information.

Last week, Apple drew attention to its new computer operating system by announcing that it will employ a technique known as differential privacy to balance these countervailing business imperatives. The term refers to the practice of mixing dummy (i.e. false) data into a large data set in order to make it more difficult for a party with data access to identify any particular user.

How does it work? Imagine, for instance, a bachelor who owns a single residential property. A fictitious wife and a vacation home might be added to his “big data” file without being included in his individual personal profile.

It’s a potentially effective strategy, but it’s a risky one as well. After all, a hacker might thwart its intent by discovering a way to identify and then delete the false content. Or the firm might mismanage its systems and lose the ability to distinguish between the true and the false data.

Given such concerns, perhaps Apple should consider a simpler approach to protecting user data. At the moment, it requires users to read its incomprehensible tiny-print disclosure language before they install its software on their devices.

Instead, perhaps the firm could simply explain the benefits and risks of its data management practices in basic layperson’s language. Each prospective user could then make an informed decision about whether the benefits of utilizing the services justify the risks of doing so.

Such a policy would place Apple squarely on the side of the principle of information transparency. It would also eliminate the need to engage in differential privacy techniques.

But what if Apple doesn’t opt for this policy? Then it’s quite possible that the firm will continue to employ such techniques for the foreseeable future, mixing its good data with the bad.

Set Top Boxes: The Other Privacy Debate

A government official issues a directive to the technology industry. Corporate spokespersons protest. And the general public leaps into a privacy debate.

The highest profile story that reflects this sequence of events, of course, involves Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino assassins. But there’s another privacy story, now brewing under a lower profile, that might ultimately wield a greater impact on the future day-to-day lives of most Americans.

It’s the cable television set-top box controversy. Most of us don’t even think about the little computerized boxes that sit on our television sets, and that convert the transmission signals into images and sound.

At the moment, virtually all Americans obtain those little boxes from the same technology companies that transmit the cable signals. But as a result of a recent Federal Communications Commission directive, that is likely to change.

Why? Because the directive opens up the set-top box market to competition. Very soon, the cable television companies will be required to allow their customers to use Apple TVs, Google Android TVs, and other third party devices to perform that conversion task. And, under these circumstances, such competition might generate undesirable consequences.

Huh? Isn’t competition a good thing? Well, yes, it is. But given that companies like Apple and Google already manage so much of our private information, access to our television viewing habits would massively magnify existing concerns about the concentration of our personal information in the hands of these firms.

Of course, the San Bernardino controversy is extremely important too. So, the next time you hear about the great privacy debate in regards to that terrible event, by all means, please feel free to deliberate about its ramifications.

But, at the same time, please don’t overlook the set-top box privacy discussion. It’s the “other” great policy debate, and it might well determine whether the firms that already know everything we do on our phones and computers also end up knowing everything we watch on television.

Retire The Teleprompter

The following posting first appeared on the nascent blog of the Strategic and Emerging Technologies (SET) Section of the American Accounting Association. I am the Chair of the Committee that is developing the social media platform of the Section, and I am posting these whimsical messages on the blog to enable us to test various technical features.

Although this posting contains humorous content, we plan to transition to more serious fare as we build out the infrastructure of the platform … without losing our sense of humor, of course!

If you have any interest in strategic and emerging technologies, you are most certainly welcome to sign up for email delivery of our SET blog postings. And soon, you’ll be able to receive notifications of all postings via LinkedIn and Twitter as well.

Whether or not we agree with the political opinions that Donald Trump is espousing to Republican voters in the American presidential campaign, we might concur that he is correct about the over-use of a ubiquitous communication technology.

Which technology is that? It’s the teleprompter. According to Trump, “I think about my speeches and I don’t believe in teleprompters, although it’s very easy. I would like to go up and stand and read a speech for an hour and just leave … I jokingly say if you’re running for president you shouldn’t be allowed to use teleprompters … you know what happens, you don’t have the same vibrance, you understand.”

The teleprompter is hardly a strategic and emerging technology. It has barely changed since the TelePrompTer Corporation first developed it over sixty years ago. It’s thus a bit surprising that its fundamental problem— that individuals who talk with their eyes glued to their screens cannot possibly speak with Trumpian vibrance to their audiences — still exists to this day.

So why haven’t our technology whizzes developed a new device to replace the teleprompter? Customized pairs of Google Glasses, for example, would permit politicians to read their lines from the tiny screens on their eyeglass frames.

Of course, as a fashion statement, eyeglasses have been known to backfire on candidates. Recently, former Texas Governor Rick Perry withdrew from the presidential campaign after Donald Trump ridiculed his eye wear, claiming that Perry “put on glasses so people (might) think he’s smart.”

If that is a concern, then perhaps Google can develop a pair of glasses with transparent or invisible frames. On April 1st of this year, for instance, the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum published a blog posting about its display of the comic superhero Wonder Woman’s invisible jet airplane. According to the Smithsonian, she has been flying it since she first became a public figure during the 1940s.

So why not ask Google to build its smart glasses with Wonder Woman’s invisible technology? The product would easily replace the teleprompter, and would enable many Republican candidates to compete with The Donald.  🙂

Tesla Re-Imagines The Drone

Many automobile companies are now developing self-propelling and self-steering automobiles that transport passengers without any active human drivers. Last week, however, Tesla re-imagined this model by promising to introduce a different capability in its vehicles.

What did Tesla promise? By the end of this year, the firm will deliver software that enables their vehicles to drive to destinations without any human passengers at all. In other words, Tesla is promising to convert its vehicles into privately owned, land based, remotely piloted drones.

That’s right: cars without people. So what does that mean for the future of our society?

For starters, it probably means that our airlines will face a new mode of competition. After all, why should you bother to catch a flight from Boston to Miami when you could attach a trailer to an automobile drone and simply relax in your own bed and plush chair until you arrive in the Sunshine State?

It may also mean the immediate obsolescence of a current generation of internet firms. There would be no need to call Uber, for instance, to take you to a destination when you could call your parked car (where ever it happens to be parked, even many miles away) and instruct it to come for you.

And why would you ever need to visit Walmart? Or wait at home for an Amazon delivery? You could simply send your car to the store or the distribution center to pick up goods or packages, and to carry them home for you. You’d simply need to inform the retailer that your automobile is on its way.

Would these new lifestyle options be good for us, or bad for us? On the one hand, they would undoubtedly provide us with significant amounts of additional free time.

But on the other hand, what would we do with all that additional time? Would we remain isolated in our homes? Or in our mobile trailers, bouncing along the highway behind our Tesla drones? And would we spend even more time staring at our electronic devices and trolling social media?

At first glance, Tesla’s technological advance appears to promise fabulous lifestyle improvements. But its value, and its impact, will ultimately be determined by the manner in which we apply it.

Like it or not, such products and services will inevitably be introduced in our society. But we might want to ponder their consequences before we actually purchase them, and before we (quite naturally) grow addicted to them.

Facebook and Google: War And Peace

Facebook and Google. Google and Facebook. People tend to assume that these firms generally employ similar business strategies, featuring the aggressive application of new technologies in order to disrupt established industries.

Facebook, for instance, now owns Instagram, a leading innovator in the online photo sharing sector and a service that helped seal the demise of the traditional photography industry. And Facebook’s virtual reality technology division Oculus VR is now driving the radical evolution of the video gaming industry.

As for Google, it is currently focusing on the development of everything from self-driving cars to advanced programmable thermostats to wearable clothing technologies. By investing in these products and services, Google hopes to disrupt the long-established automobile, home construction, and fashion clothing industries.

In other words, Facebook and Google don’t simply compete against web-based communication technology firms. They frequently declare war on firms in other industry sectors — and, in fact, on other entire industries — as well.

That might be why Google has decided to challenge telecommunications giants like Verizon and AT&T. Its Voice service already offers free phone calls to any telephone number in the United States and Canada. And, just last week, Google announced that it intends to launch a wireless phone service in the United States.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, on the other hand, has suddenly decided to go on a “charm offensive” and woo telecommunications carriers. Last week, at the Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg said, “Growing the Internet is expensive work. The only way to accelerate that is to help operators to grow their business.”

Is Facebook now changing its general strategy by declaring a state of peace with the telecommunications giants? And, by doing so, is the social network joining forces with the likes of Verizon and AT&T in order to wage war on Google?

It appears that the web based telecommunications industry is a sector where war compels peace, and where, in turn, peace enables war. In a turbulent environment like this one, is it any wonder why so many technology start-ups come and go in the blink of an eye?

Yahoo’s Flickr: Selling Your Snapshots

You take a snapshot of a sunset and decide to share it with the world. Naturally, you decide to upload the image to an online photo sharing service.

But which service do you use? Do you select Facebook’s Instagram? Or Adobe’s PhotoShop? Or perhaps Yahoo’s Flickr?

Most people would make this decision on the basis of personal habit. Some might consider the site’s target user group. Hardly any one, though, would consider the “business use” terms that are maintained by the owner of the service.

Nevertheless, if you’re considering Yahoo’s Flickr, you should keep in mind that the folks at Yahoo might sell your snapshot without your permission. And if they do, they might keep all of the proceeds of the sale for themselves.

Why are such sales transactions legal? Well, if a photographer intends to engage in non-commercial file sharing, he might choose the Creative Commons terms that are available on the service. Those terms permit others to utilize the snapshot for their own purposes, albeit with certain restrictions.

And what if the photographer does not read Flickr’s “tiny print” carefully? He may then neglect to impose restrictions on the utilization of the snapshot. Yahoo — or any other entity, for that matter — is then free to sell the image for its own commercial profit.

It may not be surprising that an enterprising firm would take advantage of the generosity of photographers by downloading and reselling snapshots from an independent web service without the photographers’ consent. But Yahoo is attracting photographers to its own service, and is then mining their snapshots to earn profits.

Oddly enough, Yahoo is a declining (though once dominant) firm that is desperately trying to recapture the goodwill of a consumer group that has moved on to competitors like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Is the uncompensated sale of user snapshots really a practice that will endear Yahoo to these consumers?

History is full of tales of businesses that squandered durable consumer reputations in pursuit of short-term profits. General Motors, after all, was once the largest automobile company in the world. And Sears Roebuck was once America’s largest retail store and mail catalog organization.

But now General Motors is reeling from lawsuits and government investigations involving inexpensive (and defective) parts. And as the owner of Sears increasingly focuses on extracting value from the organization’s real estate holdings, the financial performance of Sears’ retail business becomes more deeply mired in losses.

Indeed, General Motors and Sears are learning that short-term profits often lead to long-term losses when consumers lose faith in the quality, reliability, and trustworthiness of a product or service. As Yahoo proceeds down a similar path, it may come to regret its decision to adopt an analogous strategy.

Apple, Samsung, Lenovo … and Xiaomi?

Two years ago, Samsung was on a roll. Its Galaxy S3 model shot past Apple’s iPhone 3 to become the best selling smart phone in the world. And in China, Samsung itself supplanted Apple as the most popular brand.

For a while, it appeared that the smart phone sector might go the way of the automobile industry, where an upstart Asian manufacturer named Toyota surpassed a once-dominant firm named General Motors in both sales volume and brand perception. But has that actually occurred in the phone sector during the past two years?

Fortunately for Apple, the tide has turned. Last week, the China Brand Research Center (CBRC) announced that Apple had retaken the top spot in brand perception from Samsung in China. And during the past month, Apple’s latest iPhone 6 model outsold Samsung’s Galaxy Note 4 in many regions, including Samsung’s home nation of South Korea.

So has Apple turned the tables on Samsung? Has the American firm taken the fight to its Korean foe in Asia’s largest markets, and reasserted itself as the world’s dominant smart phone maker?

In a word: “no.” Based on the most recent quarterly sale data, Samsung still leads Apple in global market share. And although Apple is closing the gap, both firms have been losing market share since the fourth quarter of last year.

To whom? To the Chinese firms Lenovo and Xiaomi, which have been growly rapidly at the lower end of the market spectrum. Lenovo grabbed significant market share by absorbing the handset manufacturer Motorola, while Xiaomi has surged in popularity by emulating Apple’s strategy.

In fact, “emulation” doesn’t begin to describe how closely Xiaomi is following Apple’s playbook. Its chief executive Lei Jun even appears at new product presentation events in Steve Jobs’ classic “black shirt and blue jeans” attire.

In other words, although Apple and Samsung are locked in a battle for the top spot in both sales volume and brand value, it would be inappropriate to continue to characterize the firms as the dominant forces in the industry. In truth, both firms are struggling to maintain their customers in the face of Chinese competition.

So is it possible that Apple and Samsung may eventually follow the path of General Motors? And some day, may Lenovo and Xiaomi surpass these firms in the manner of Toyota?

As long as Apple can continue to maintain superior brand value, its reputation for quality may help inoculate it against the encroachment of less costly consumer products. That’s why CBRC’s recent announcement was so meaningful to the American firm.

Nevertheless, when smaller upstart firms (like Xiaomi) can make inroads by simultaneously building reputations for both affordability and quality, it’s time for the established players to worry.

Technology Titans In Trouble

Something strange is happening to America’s titans of technology. At the precise moment when the economy is supposedly gaining strength, and at the very time when technology platforms are evolving in increasingly productive ways, many dominant firms are experiencing dramatic slow-downs (or even outright declines) in sales revenue.

Just last week, for instance, Amazon slashed its sales projections for the upcoming holiday season. Apple revealed that it was losing iTunes music volume to online streaming services. And IBM abandoned its $20 earnings per share “road map” target for 2015, while an analyst complained, “too much of its revenue comes from old-school business lines, and not from potential growth areas.”

But why are such admired firms suddenly struggling to attract customers? After all, IBM rescued itself from collapse by shifting from a hardware focus to a customer focus in the early 1990s. Amazon virtually invented the online sales industry in the late 1990s. And Apple’s iTunes, along with the iPod, revolutionized the music industry in the early 2000s.

All three firms, though, now appear to be struggling to maintain their competitive market positions. Amazon’s initial venture into mobile phones, for instance, flopped earlier this year. Apple is pinning its hopes on integrating its recently acquired Beats music streaming service with its own iTunes service. And IBM industry analysts are now referring to the firm’s predicament with expressions like “a sad national story.”

At first glance, these firms appear to be focused on different technology sectors. Nevertheless, they do seem to share a common problem. Namely, their customers are underwhelmed by their offerings, and they are taking their sales revenue elsewhere.

Unless these firms can rediscover the internal development capabilities that first drove them to prosperity, their days as industry titans may indeed be numbered.

Spiderman Is Following Obama Care

Chalk up another defeat for advanced technology!

Last week, the producers of the Broadway mega-musical Spiderman threw in the towel. They announced that they will soon close the New York show and write off their huge losses, hoping to recoup some of their investment by launching a less expensive version of the play in Las Vegas.

Why did it fail? Some blame an uninspiring screenplay and a limp songbook. Many others, though, claim that the musical was “done in” by its own advanced technology.

The show utilized complex electronic equipment to help the super hero leap across the stage and soar over the heads of the audience. When it worked properly, it was spectacular. But when it malfunctioned, it inflicted terrible injuries on its cast.

The Affordable Care Act, of course, is suffering a similar fate. The Obama Administration authorized the development of a snazzy, sophisticated, and technologically advanced platform that is designed to attract many customers to purchase health insurance. But the malfunctioning web site has inflicted grievous harm on the prospects of the initiative.

At first glance, it may appear to be a stretch to compare Spiderman with Obama Care in any respect. Nevertheless, both the producers of the theatrical play and the developers of the health care site relied on (obviously) faulty technologies to please their audiences, only to find that those very technologies actually caused their downfalls.

Is there a lesson to be learned from their common experiences? Perhaps it is that advanced technologies may indeed do more harm than good when delivering human services. When the tasks involve lifting actors into the air or enrolling consumers in health insurance plans, sometimes it is wiser to rely on human beings to achieve our goals.