Analytics, Big Data, Big Data and Analytics, Digital Strategy, Innovation

Tony Soprano, The Supreme Court, and the “Big Picture” of Google Maps

22 Mar , 2017  

Take out the GPS. I don’t want the FBI tracking us with it.” – Tony Soprano

That’s what I like about you, boss; you are always thinking of the big picture.” – Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri.

That is a cleaned-up and paraphrased exchanged between Tony Soprano and Paulie, when the mob crew got new Cadillac Escalades and Tony requested that the GPS units be removed. The step up from the Chevy Suburban to the Cadillac Escalade was probably fitting for the likes of the Soprano mafia outfit. The exchange gave GM a (great) place to promote its novel vehicle tracking with OnStar. Given that most people were concerned about being found in an emergency or having their car recovered after a theft, the opportunity to showcase the power of vehicle tracking was surely a nice one for GM. The implication was perfect for GM. Tony feared it and the FBI could (mis)use it. Yes, please, I’d like OnStar in my Escalade!

Fast forward 13 years or so and we now have instant and constant tracking not just of cars but of virtually every smart phone made. Most of us have dozens of apps that track us, too: Yelp, TripAdvisor, Weather Channel, and the list goes on and on. Google Maps is perhaps the most important app with tracking. It is one of the most popular mobile phone apps, with some 70% of the mobile app community using it at least once.

The tracking world is a fierce one, just like the Northern New Jersey shake down scene. Apple Maps recently surpassed Google Maps and is now the most popular map app with over 5 billion requests per week! Surely in an effort to differentiate itself, Google Maps announced that in an upcoming release, the app will share (or publish) your location with others. Of course, you get controls over this. You can limit the people who can locate you and limit how long people can locate you. It surely will help find that Uber driver in a rain storm or the pizza delivery person lost at the apartment complex. It does, of course, break a new boundary on privacy. Google Maps and Apple Maps and loads of other apps have been tracking us for years, but now that data will be published.

As Paulie Walnuts Gualtieri suggested, let’s think about the big picture.

First, there are clear benefits. Finding a child, spouse, or anyone in a time of need is made far easier. Tracking behavior for illegal or illicit trade (though that can happen by police now) is easier. However, do we want to be tracked at all times? And what are the implications?

The “big picture” of constant person tracking and publication of that can alter many things.

Naturally, people fear that employers can use that to track location and then tie that to pay. That tracking already happens in many jobs where physical presence is a requirement.

Consider the consultant that travels from Atlanta to New York for a 3-day job. Data on his or her travel can (in the near future) be acquired. Does that allow the great State of New York and the City of New York the ability to tax that person while performing business in NYC? Tracking data will make that possible. Consider the many permutations of this. If I buy apples at an Orchard in Wisconsin, but I eat the apples in Illinois, will Illinois want a piece of my apple purchase under use tax? Perhaps the data of location coupled with a payment record will make it easy enough for a piece of AI code to levy a tax. Got an unpaid debt? Imagine the debt collector on you 24-7 – in your face 24-7, at Starbucks and the gym, ringing your bell at 2 AM, even when you are on vacation. Trying to get away – no chance.

I like that in Singapore, you can deduct the days of residence outside of Singapore from your tax bill. Spend a month in the UK, then Singapore taxes you for 11 months not 12. Perhaps Google Maps data can be used to calculate one’s true residency. On a month-long vacation in Florida, great – no income tax in New York that month!

Indeed, as many of our laws in taxation are based on domicile and location, publishing location and activity with location will permit a new wave of tax encroachments and challenges never seen before.

And we should all accept that car insurance, someday soon, will require a vehicle tracking device. I am surprised it has not happened already. I think the benefits of safer roads, improved public safety, and reduced accidents outweigh any privacy concerns.

Although there are many safety upsides to being found through Google Maps, one must ask if it is all good. What happens when a criminal has access to this data? Do they have the data for a robbery, mugging, or abduction? Surely, their work is made easier. Can the data be stolen, hacked, or simply saved via another app through an API? Publishing is more active than just saving or capturing. Location data will be published. What is possible when someone hacks your friend’s computer or phone and then knows your location?

The idea of being tracked and then having that data used without consent made it to the Supreme Court in the US vs. Antoine Jones case of 2012. Jones was under FBI investigation for various criminal things. In the course of this investigation, a GPS was installed on his Jeep. It transmitted his location back to investigators. The location information was helpful in the prosecution against Jones. He sued for invasion of privacy and trespassing. In a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the data collected from the GPS affixed to his Jeep was unlawfully gathered.

However, the justices were split in their rational regarding why it was unlawful. The notion of an expectation of privacy created some disagreement. Justice Alito, perhaps captured this best, when he stated “You know, I don’t know what society expects and I think it’s changing. Technology is changing people’s expectations of privacy. Suppose we look forward 10 years, and maybe 10 years from now 90 percent of the population will be using social networking sites and they will have on average 500 friends and they will have allowed their friends to monitor their location 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, through the use of their cell phones. Then — what would the expectation of privacy be then?”

Anticipating the challenge that might occur when the data is acquired through electronic means versus physical means (the GPS in the Jones case was attached to his vehicle by investigators and thus created a physical trespass), Justice Alito wrote in the majority opinion:

“It may be that achieving the same result through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy, but the present case does not require us to answer that question.”

I expect the Google Maps tracking data (or some other tracking data) will someday fall into the hands of misuse, either through misrepresentation, theft, hacking, or simply pressing of the boundaries of social and legal norms. I expect a case like this to make it to the Supreme Court. If I were on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I’d ask candidate judges to explain the protection of privacy in the digital realm. We should all know. There is a need for laws in digital privacy.

And sometimes, when you are catching a few rays with friends out by the butcher shop, you don’t want to share that, unless you want to. And if you want to, there is always Twitter, Tinder, Snapchat, and Instagram.

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Professor Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and Big Data. He is Clinical Professor of Managerial Economics and Decision Sciences at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University. He has worked with many professional sports teams and leading marketing organizations through the Analytical Consulting Lab, an experiential class that he founded and leads at Kellogg.


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Russell Walker helps companies develop strategies to manage risk and harness value through analytics and big data. He has done novel research in data monetization and digital disruption and advises leading firms on these topics. As Director of Experiential Learning in Analytics and Associate Teaching Professor of Marketing and International Business at the Foster School of Business, at the University of Washington, Dr. Walker is an academic thought-leader on analytics. Russell Walker has developed and taught leading executive programs on Big Data and Analytics, Strategic Data-Driven Marketing, Enterprise Risk, Operational Risk, and Global Leadership. Previous to moving to Seattle and the Foster School, Dr. Walker was Clinical Professor at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, where he founded and taught many popular courses in analytics and risk management. His is the author of the book From Big Data to Big Profits: Success with Data and Analytics (Oxford University Press, 2015) which examines data monetization strategies and the development of data-centric business models in the new digital economy. He is also the author of the award-winning text Winning with Risk Management (World Scientific Publishing, 2013), which examines the principles and practice of risk management as a competitive advantage. Dr. Walker consults with firms on the topics of Big Data and Analytics, Data Monetization, Risk Management, and Business Strategy. Russell Walker can be reached at: @RussWalker1776

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