• Place-based services and privacy

    Posted 2010.08.25

    Erving Goffman
    There has been a lot of discussion lately about Facebook Places, Foursquare, Gowalla and other companies offering place-based services. Privacy has, understandably, been a concern. This post discusses who the stakeholders are, the relationships between them, and how benefiting from being in your favourite places doesn’t have to mean giving up your privacy.  We designed Krstl on that principle.

    The stakeholders
    There’s the public, first of all. Some want to gain from being present in a place whether through discount coupons, kudos (someone who really wanted to become mayor), or through in-situ game play.  Others want simply to keep friends updated about their location.

    Then there are the companies such as Facebook and Foursquare who supply place-based services.  What’s in it for them?  Your data, first of all: they gain by selling it on to marketing companies or using it to try to enhance the services they offer to you and therefore their advertising revenues.  They do deals with advertising companies who direct campaigns at a particular demographic by targeting appropriate places: a nightclub versus a museum, for example. Last but not least, companies providing place-based services may do deals with, unsurprisingly, places.

    But places are often overlooked to a surprising extent in this picture, especially given how good a position they’re in to enhance the experience for customers they know so well. The owners of places want people to visit, spend money with them, have a good time, return, and recommend them to friends.  They may offer incentives for visits and enhance visits by offering exclusive services, or at least services that can’t easily be had elsewhere. The incentive may be a straightforward as a coupon, but it may be much more imaginative and, arguably, more compelling. The owner of a cafe, for example, can curate all kinds of content for customers to receive about their coffees and cakes and Fairtrade links, because it’s part of the cafe’s identity and USP. Equally, a fashion retail chain could provide videos of designers talking about the goods in front of its customers, or in-store virtual “characters” to answer questions and help them choose.

    Place-based relationships

    When we bring place-owners to the fore as stakeholders it becomes clear that there are two basic kinds of relationship that place-based services should foster: person-person (via place) and person-place.  The latter is very different and could be given much better support.

    To check-in or not to check-in?

    You don’t have to check-in to benefit from place-based services.  The shop I’m in doesn’t need to know that Tim Kindberg is there.  It will suffice for many purposes to know that my mobile, as an anonymous device, is physically present.  The place is rewarding me for being there (and spending there), not for being Tim Kindberg per se.  Some place-based services want my identity because it is commercially valuable to them. A place may want my identity too, but it should be up to me to decide whether I want to disclose it to that particular organisation.

    What if the shop or other place wants to reward me for my loyalty?  So give me an electronic visiting card with an identity but not necessarily my real identity – maybe I’m Sir Shopalot.  Sir Shopalot gets extra discounts by coming back to the physical shop, let’s say.

    Some people want friends to know their whereabouts. They can let friends (people who actually know them in person as opposed to acquaintances) know where they are through a different identity than their true identity.  That’s what happens when millions of people use Bluetooth every day to exchange pictures and music between their mobile phones.  They choose an alias as their Bluetooth ‘friendly name’ in a way that fits with their identity in their specific social network.  We published research at Ubicomp that shows that. The reason people don’t use their true identities as their Bluetooth names is more than sensitivity over the privacy of location data.  People also make a positive choice to project their unique identity in an exclusive way that makes sense only in their social group.  Being Sir Shopalot rather than your real name is more fun.

    Location-based authentication

    Back in 2001 we developed what we now call loctchas, or ways to authenticate location.  That’s where the supplier of a service cares where the client is but not necessarily who the client is.  We gave an example that relates to place-based services as we know them now:

    To attract customers, the Kardomah Coffee House wishes to provide a service only to those who are, or who have recently been, on their premises

    If you don’t want anyone – the Kardomah Coffee House or other people – to be told that you’re in the Kardomah, but still to be rewarded with a discount on their Sumatran Special, then location-based authentication is for you – and the Kardomah.  As we’ve said, if you want to benefit further from loyalty, and not just a one-off visit, then you can at the same time show you are Mistress Caffeine, or whichever identity you think is appropriate.

    Summary

    We’ve argued that two aspects of place-based services deserve better provision: privacy and the relationships between people and places. Places are stakeholders in that they are the cafes, shops and other spaces where people visit, but they’re not stakeholders technologically speaking: they don’t seem to have a control point in current offerings. It’s hardly new or controversial to say that privacy is an issue.  What is new from matter 2 media is that there are privacy-respecting technologies for places.

    Interested?

    If you’d like to discuss any of the above ideas, and matter 2 media’s technical realisation of them, then please get in touch.