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Peter Cochrane's Blog: Our digital slime trails

These days, leaving a record of our movements is almost inevitable - but does it matter?

GPS location tracking: Wherever we go, however public or private the location, we inevitably leave behind a digital record

Wherever we go, however public or private the location, we inevitably leave behind a digital recordPhoto: Christian Holmér

Written on UA 949 flying London to Chicago and dispatched to silicon.com via my hotel wi-fi system.

No matter what we do or how we behave, we still leave an inescapable trail of bits, just like a slug crawling across concrete. Where we have been is very visible.

In late April there were two big events: a royal wedding that attracted millions of television viewers, and the discovery that the iPhone and Android look-alikes are all watching us. Every time we move location, smartphones are tracked, recorded, and positions uploaded without us knowing.

I couldn't really get excited about either subject.

The reality is everything we do is now observed and recorded, and it is almost impossible to be invisible or indeed disappear. Think about it. As we go about our daily lives, we carry and leave a highly visible trail of information in the form of bits including these basics:

  • Name, address, friends, family, colleagues, work records, national insurance, tax number, driving, marriage, sports, TV, road licence, passport, health, birth and death records, bank accounts, credit and debit cards, PINs, insurance, investments, pension fund, financial, advisers, solicitors, property agents, club memberships and loyalty cards, purchases, retail profiling.

And then of course there is a lot of slightly more sophisticated stuff:

  • Places visited, fixed and mobile phone details, laptop, VoIP and conventional calls and call records, plus GPS, DNS, wi-fi, Bluetooth, LAN history, email, text, IM, websites, passwords, aliases, search history, social nets, personal and company websites, online purchases and associations, ISPs and login sites, locations, meetings, associations, relationships, shops, stores, garages, companies, streets, security and traffic cameras.

The list seems to be endless and growing.

The question to be asking is what organisations such as Apple intend to do with these GPS records later? My guess is that the information will turn up in new forms of social networking involving real and virtual worlds.

It could also be used in network design and management software, road and street-map refinements, crowd-control system design, building design, retail management, transport management and much more.

Should we be worried about any of this? Depends where you choose to live and travel. For the most part it happens to be a very positive aspect of living in a politically stable and democratic society.

And we actually gain great benefit and advantage, as well as a degree of irritation, from the digital use of this personal information. In other regimes these benefits may certainly not be present.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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