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Wi-Fi Location Privacy as a Commercial Asset

November 19, 2015


The Big Data mentality that pervades almost all Internet deployment technologies, services and apps, tends to think of location data as the diamond in the Big Data treasure chest. It is the most insightful of data. It can be used to indirectly determine interest in things around people, it can discern who are friends or colleagues even if they never connect digitally, it can be used to spark events such as the making of a specific coffee order for a customer as they enter the café.

When aggregated and correlated with other data it can ultimately define, in depth, who someone is. Best of all – it requires no user input. It’s a passive monitoring facility. So why is it that despite smartphones having GPS for over 15 years we are not seeing widespread use of the data? except in mapping/routing services and of course Uber – although they quickly got in trouble for not being careful enough with it.

Part of the answer is of course legislative, at least in Europe. The mobile operators have been tracking our smartphone location for years, they even commonly get us suckers consumers to tick a consent box when we get our sims, it allow them to use this data for whatever commercial purpose they like. But they are very careful how they use it. They understand, much like Uber did not, that unfettered access and careless use of such data is a potential nuclear bomb for their brands.

But the real answer is the simple observation that users don’t or won’t opt-in to location tracking unless they see an unambiguous immediate benefit. In short it creeps them out. They may not understand how the meta-data of their myriad online interactions profiles them, but there is an instinctive awareness that having your location tracked provides insights they’d rather not share.

It’s a trust issue, just like the Uber issue became. In 2013 only 11% of mobile app users stated they’d be willing to share their location data in a mobile app. That percentage may even be slipping to a lower % today as users become more informed of how they are being tracked and profiled.

So what’s the response of business? In general, to try and collate the data indirectly. For example 59% of retail fashion stores in the UK now use facial recognition cameras to track shopper movements. Is this legal? Very doubtful, but currently untested. The main protection is to claim it’s done anonymously. That’s hard to do with something as specific as a facial image definition! In fact it’s mathematically arguable that there is no such thing as anonymity in Big Data.


It’s why the ICO’s around Europe carefully use the ‘best efforts’ clause to interpret anonymous data control. But what does that mean? Again untested in law. So in short, companies play fast and lose with this data and pray they are not the ones to get caught. But there is a big legislative change coming.

The root and branch revision of the Data Protection Act (the GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation) is due to come into legislation in 2016. Not only is it a tighter definition of privacy, updated to deal with modern tech capability, it raises the bar of fines from a few 100K Euros, to 10’s of Millions of Euros or more! Privacy is no longer something that can be dismissed as a cost of doing business.

So how do we unlock Wi-Fi based location value? The short answer is that what Wi-Fi can do without any knowledge of location is to co-locate people. Creating the opportunity to bring the cloud down to the crowd, delivering localised digital engagement in the context of location-private solutions.

But tech alone does not unlock the location value proposition – what’s also needed is an engagement model designed to engender user trust in the service provider. By gaining user trust we can foster localized engagement and through that unlock, via opt-in mechanisms, localized commercial value.

To that end Krowdthink has spent years researching and evolving a trust model. We will present and debate our trust Pyramid when we formally launch.  But we are already seeing institutions like the Mobile Ecosystem Forum start to try and define a trust model, the UK Digital Catapult has a Privacy and Trust initiative that will soon birth their methodology for trusted digital engagement.

Privacy, placed in a trustworthy engagement model, will become the next commercial value proposition for businesses.

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