Traffic apps a two-way street

That free iPhone app to help navigate traffic may come with a price to your personal privacy.

Getting the latest traffic information from a smartphone can be a two-way street.

There’s undeniable allure to timely tips on road congestion, collisions, stalled cars and construction for our daily commutes.

“It’s like a personal traffic helicopter, watching out for your route every time you get in the car,” says a promotional video for the TrafficAlert app.

But there’s a potential price to pay for this convenience.

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While you sit at the wheel, finishing off your morning coffee on the way to work, real-time road information apps such as TrafficAlert, Beat the Traffic and Google Traffic expose your phone’s unique ID number and GPS data to others.

When the GPS is switched on, your phone’s movements have the potential to go straight back to the app’s creators and their advertisers, letting them know who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.

In the app world, it’s called data mining. It digs up gold for advertisers looking to match up your personal habits with their products.

Mark Bridges, a partner in GreenOwl Mobile, author of the TrafficAlert app, says the only piece of information that comes his way from mobile devices is the unique user ID.

“Privacy and anonymity is very important to us and what we do,” he says.

Currently, TrafficAlert is ad-free, but the firm is establishing partnership apps with radio stations such as Rock 95 in Barrie, which are then free to drop in their own ads.

So far, says Bridges, these ads are generic “this traffic report is brought to you by …” messages.

“We can provide value to users without having to know where they buy their underwear,” he says.

Beat the Traffic, an app that covers all the major urban centres in the U.S. and Canada, is about to roll out its first third-party marketing initiatives in the San Francisco area.

“Driving from one point to another, we can offer motorists a coupon for a business along the way,” explains marketing manager Yann Lhomme.

“The first part I like. The second part I don’t like,” says Toronto limousine driver Zahid Gulman of the trade-off between convenience and commerce.

People concerned with privacy in the digital domain don’t like it, either.

“We’re very bad at calculating expected risk or cost, so we make bad choices about sharing information,” says independent privacy researcher and consultant Ashkan Soltani.

“Instant gratification will discount things in the future.”

This is the flip side of the seductive appeal of crowdsourcing.

Google was one of the first companies to mine the potential of cellphones to provide real-time traffic information.

Data from each mobile device’s GPS is analyzed by density and relative speed.

Motorists get a bird’s-eye view of traffic on their route.

“It takes almost zero effort on your part — just turn on Google Maps for mobile before starting your car — and the more people that participate, the better the resulting traffic reports get for everybody,” says the company’s website.

Inrix, a traffic navigation app developer based in Kirkland, Wash., which supplies data to Beat the Traffic, now claims a user base of 30 million mobile devices.

Google says it respects its users’ privacy: “We only use anonymous speed and location information to calculate traffic conditions, and only do so when you have chosen to enable location services on your phone,” states the company’s blog.

Canadian phone and data providers also have strict privacy guidelines. But apps can get around them by sending your information directly to third parties.

Soltani notes a Wall Street Journal investigation he helped organize last year.

It analyzed data flowing through 101 apps representing a cross-section of genres, from Pandora to Angry Birds, for iPhone and Android devices.

“Fifty-six transmitted the phone’s unique device ID to other companies without users’ awareness or consent,” the article stated. “Forty-seven apps transmitted the phone’s location in some way. Five sent age, gender and other personal details to outsiders.”

The device ID is like a cookie in your home computer. It can be used as a means to track how you use your phone or pad. Although the ID is anonymous, a few extra calculations can match up a person’s daily habits and online purchases to construct a broad personal profile.

The state of California and the U.S. Senate currently have bills on the table that lay out clear rules of consent for collecting digital data.

Soltani doubts that’s the answer.

“What if app developers ask me to consent to more detailed tracking services, such as Facebook Connect? Without baseline privacy protection and a list of acceptable and unacceptable (business) practices, the consent model may create more bad outcomes.”

Soltani says the most important thing to know about any mobile app is that “you’re engaging in an exchange of data.” Once users are aware of this, they should have tools to deal with it according to their preferences.

In June, Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian sent a message to hardware and software developers, asking that they “address privacy proactively and put control squarely in the hands of the users, where it belongs.”

How to ensure your privacy

Become familiar with your phone.

Set up a password.

Become familiar with all of the device’s “location services,” which turn GPS functions on and off.

Although you can’t turn off a mobile device’s unique ID number, you can check whether the app you want comes with a privacy policy. If you can’t find one, chances are there isn’t one.

Source: Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association

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