Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? Geolocation can tell you

April 26, 2016

What does Carmen Sandiego have to do with Privacy?

Carmen Sandiego may be easier to find in 2016.

Thirty years ago, Carmen and her band of henchmen began gallivanting around the globe, leaving mischief in their wake. Children, tasked with the role of detective, relied on geographical knowledge to decipher clues and lead Carmen into the unwavering hands of justice. While Carmen has maintained a good run, these thirty years have molded a geo-conscious world, one in which her covert proclivity may prove difficult to maintain.

Geolocation technologies can pinpoint a person’s or object’s position on earth. These technologies aren’t new, but a shift in the approach to global positioning services (GPS) and the ubiquity of cell phones has made geolocation an axiom of accelerating change.

Innovators began to explore adaptations for geolocation in 1996 when GPS became a dual-use system technology. Applications for GPS surfaced, but user adoption failed to keep pace. Early adopters quickly realized that acquiring a signal proved difficult when life happened. Gowalla, launched in 2006, was the first mover in the location-based “check-in” market, but “checking-in” at your favorite barista parlor proved difficult when the surrounding walls broke the signal.

Similar obstacles led companies to develop more reliable ways to identify locations, including assisted GPS (A-GPS), cellular network search, and crowd sourcing. A-GPS minimizes the time it takes for a  GPS client to acquire a satellite connection. Cellular network search utilizes a stored cache of nearby fixed cellular tower locations to triangulate the device location. Lastly, crowd-sourced databases of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell tower data have been collected and are utilized to accurately identify device locations. Used in conjunction, these geolocation technologies have created a reliable means of identifying device location that paved the road for geolocation adoption.

Applications are plenty, and niche markets have splintered from the growth. Mobile users realize the benefits of geolocation each time they input their destination and press "Navigate." Emergency responders are able to locate lost or injured persons who are unable to disclose their precise location and corporations engage geolocation to better understand customer behavior in a contextual manner.

The current push seems to be in the realm of geo-targeting or marketing and delivering content to individuals based on geographical information. From this, new obstacles have arisen, and enticing consumers to share their location seems paramount. I can only speak for myself, but I’ll abstain until offered a horse in the race. Since they’re doing the selling, I’ll await their offer.

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