If you’ve got a smartphone, you can’t help but notice a tiny little arrow, satellite dish, or teardrop icon at the top of your screen sometimes.
It looks pretty innocuous, nestled as it is among the battery, Wi-Fi and cell strength doodads. In fact most of us don’t notice it’s even there—until we realize we’re running out of battery and go on a frantic hunt of which app have I left running? That’s because the icon says your GPS is on, quietly listening to the sky, gobbling up your battery’s charge.
Plus, it’s tracking your every move, but you have no idea which app. Or why.
Meh. So What?
If you’ve got a workforce with smartphones, then you’ve got a potential problem.
Ignorance could be resulting in thousands of people broadcasting their location data within your organization, each at thousands of moments per day. None of those individuals are willfully ignoring your security or data protocols: Their little electronic pals simply didn’t get the memo.
Oh Noes! Pass The Tinfoil Hat: You’re Just Being Paranoid
Actually, no. Think about it: Where we are and what we’re doing is big business—because it’s big data.
In the past, most of us would have gone off the big-data corporations’ radars when we went to work. We signed into protected networks, we may not even have had access to the Internet. We disappeared, except when we sneakily checked our email in the lulls of our work.
But now, not only do we check our email, but we do much more besides. We book meetings using Outlook, and sync that to our personal calendar—often a Google or iCloud calendar. Then we enter the exact location of the meeting, which Google or Apple then uses their mapping data to cross reference. And learn.
Even if you use Outlook exclusively, your contractors/freelancers probably use a shadow service like these. They won’t have thought twice about telling it where your meeting is, in what room, on which campus.
The Gamification Of Spying
Then there’s Ingress: Google’s ‘location’ game, which involves teams fighting for dominance over particular location-based checkpoints.
Fortunately these checkpoints can only be in public places that anyone can reach, but if you work on a campus, that could potentially mean any of your buildings. As players check in and try and to take control of certain points—such as your buildings, which anyone can stand outside—they’re broadcasting when they arrive and when they leave.
If they walk between two points, they broadcast the time taken to do so, and how often on average per day they do that. Of course Google ultimately holds all that information, because Google runs the game.
Now the company says it uses the data to follow people’s paths through the world, so it can improve directions and journey times given by Google Maps. But this is information that, should you be the target of industrial espionage or social engineering attacks, is highly useful when combined with other information. But none of this will ever have crossed the minds of those playing a harmless game.
Checkin apps pose a similar problem. Nobody sees the harm in announcing when they’re arriving by checking in on Swarm, Foursquare or Facebook. But that depends on who might be tracking your senior teams’ movements so they can (ahem) “accidentally” plan to bump into one of them at a bar.
Irrelevant, perhaps, if you’re not dealing in cutting edge technology. But crucial if you are.
But Wait! Where There’s Threat, There’s Also Opportunity
It’s not all bad news, however: The potential for using location data logged by your employees is huge.
Imagine being able to track the movement flows, not of individuals, but of masses through your own organization. Would you be able to spot that the staff cafeteria suffers lines of 20 minutes at noon, and so stagger people’s lunches by Department? Your employees could spend less time queuing and more time relaxing during their lunch break.
Or, if that idea’s too authoritarian for your liking, would you be able to spot that all your meeting rooms are at capacity all day every day, but nobody ever visits meeting room 22 on the third floor—because it’s fallen off the room-booking system?
Or how about knowing what days of the week most people arrive late to work and providing incentives for them to attend on time—such as discounted breakfast?
Location data could tell you all this and more.
The Bottom Line: Mine The Potential
As with all big—or small—data, the potential for mining, analyzing and making a difference is exciting. In some ways, the Google game Ingress is actually a massive GIS, with each checkpoint geolocated, each team represented in a different color, their movements mapped out for all to see. Right now, the ability to query that data sits with Google alone.
But there’s huge potential for that information to be sold and used—for good, by you.