In a ’50s movie thriller, two bored young girls play a dangerous game of dialing random numbers and delivering a cryptic message “I know who you are and I saw what you did”. Unfortunately, one of the numbers dialed was that of a murderer who sets out to find who sent the message. A classic problem of location in space-time or ‘where’ and ‘when’. In the ’50s that took some doing which is why the movie was a thriller, but today the task is too simple because we are data, message, location and all. We are sensors spewing out data about ourselves and our friends, acquaintances, and relatives through apps that are supposed to ‘help’ us to remain in touch.
Recent events have shown how such apps have been used to compromise our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our countries. Most of us are compelled to skip the yada yada about security and permissions by clicking ‘yes’. The purpose of the verbose legalese of the security and permission statement which runs into pages being precisely that — to direct us to just press ‘yes’ and compromise ourselves. In fact, a very Faustian compact. Well, not that bad really.
Location is at the heart of applications, both civil and military. From locating a restaurant to locating survivors in a disaster-hit area, location is the key. Location is traditionally associated with maps, which is why some countries treat maps as secret documents. In a sense, traditional maps are static models of a past reality, but that has changed. Location is not only about static objects but about mobile targets as well. It is called location awareness. Think of self-driving cars, tracking of assets, controlling drones from flying into no-fly zones and protecting individuals from straying into hazardous areas. One could imagine similar applications in the areas of homeland security and international border management.
Satellite data, particularly the 24X7 approach of satellite swarms, has made data almost real time. Today augmented reality, self-driving vehicles, asset tracking and similar real-time applications need such data and thus maps have transitioned from paper documents to digital models which are updated in real time not only from remotely sensed imagery but also instantaneous positioning information from GPS and local sensors. We are a part of the real-time data as we use our devices for location. A search for the nearest Thai restaurant does use your instantaneous position information.
The flip side of this is the invasion of individual privacy. Should advertisers bombard you with advertisements and ‘offers’ from Thai restaurants because you prefer that cuisine? even as I write Google and Amazon are making suggestions based on my search history and online purchases. Sometimes, it becomes hilarious. I started using Uber in Bangalore when I was there on an extended trip, but even though I am back home I still get ‘offers’ for rides in Bangalore!
Unfortunately, this hunger for real-time mappable data also gives rise to illegal surveillance and other dark web activities. Location information is thus a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. Realizing this, Europe has spelled out its position in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which will come into force very soon. Basically, even if you share your personal data, you are still in control and can decide how it can be used and even revoke permissions.
It is a good sign that regulation is keeping up with technological changes. 5G is around the corner and its massive data-handling capacity will bring in new problems. On the one hand, geospatial mapping of potential problem areas which can limit 5G networks is an excellent application, on the other side, the attendant health hazards due to the use of millimeter wave communications also need to be mapped. Ultimately, the enhancement of the data deluge will also be vulnerable to data misuse.
Over and above data regulations we need data ethics. Modern maps, being instantaneous data, need to be ethically used.