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Americans simply want to know they have a choice
December 1st 2011 -

It’s kind of cliché to constantly remind readers of the speed at which technology has evolved and yet it is that same blinding speed which seems to be the catalyst behind so much of the dissatisfaction and anxiety consumers express in the consumer technology marketplace. Whether the pace of new technology will ever slow is anybody’s guess but it is always important for the providers of emerging technologies to remember that above all the consumers simply wants to know that they have the option to choose.

Take for instance the Apple iPhone. Who could have predicted that in four short years Apple could have gone from a newcomer to the mobile phone market to the dominating force behind the industry, driving innovation and (let’s be honest) fashion into an otherwise rather utilitarian industry. The iPhone became an instant best seller and has remained so with every revision subsequently released. It is now the standard by which all other mobile phones are measured.

On the other hand, the one hurdle which Apple was only able to overcome by sheer scope of innovation was the three years of exclusivity the iPhone had to endure with mobile service carrier AT&T. Many consumers LOVED the iPhone but HATED AT&T. The problem was… they had no choice of carrier. It has recently come to light that even Steve Jobs didn’t want to submit to an exclusivity contract and had he been able to avoid it then it is likely that the iPhone would have become EVEN MORE ubiquitous than it is already. It was a sacrifice that was made in order to bring the device to market and consumers became mesmerized, enamored and addicted.

Then came the fall from grace. At the same time that the iPhone’s exclusivity contract was ending and additional carriers were able to pick up the ever-popular model, security experts announced that they had found the Achilles’ heel of not only the Apple design but also competitor Android. It was revealed that the functions used by the mobile devices to triangulate the user’s position were also storing this information indefinitely and even worse periodically sending this information back to its designers for reasons unknown. It was not revealed by the manufacturers initially and therefore the appearance of impropriety was a black eye no amount of positive spin could overcome. American consumers value their privacy or at least the notion that their privacy is equally valued by the merchants with whom they choose to share information. In response to the scandal, both Apple and Google released patches to allow users to opt out or at least control the amount of information their devices share about their usage habits including their movements.

You would think that the notoriety and negative publicity witnessed as a result of this event would have at least made merchants and marketing behavior analysts tread much more cautiously when it comes to insulating consumers from dictatorial uses of technology to track their habits. You would be wrong. In the recesses of 2011’s Black Friday headlines was a little noticed but still significant article about several shopping malls which sought to employ mobile signal triangulation to track the movements and patterns of shoppers during the Black Friday retail surge. With no identifiable information being collected or stored, all they wanted to accomplish was gain a better understanding of how consumers move from store to store. This would help with future decisions about the placement and structure of retailers, services and amenities. The consumers however saw it much differently – an involuntary monitoring of their movements which could possibly be overlaid with purchase receipts to actually build an IDENTIFIABLE database of their actions. The only opt-out would be to turn off the mobile devices being tracked. The communication of this policy was printed and posted throughout the shopping center on the day it went into effect, the busiest retail shopping day of the year. Consumers were understandably concerned as were a few local legislators. In response to the negative public reception, some of the malls opted to not employ the technology.

Ironically, the Tuesday following this Black Friday debacle is when Google chose to release the beta version of their new Maps program which allows users to locate themselves within a large venue such as an airport, arena or shopping mall! Facilities can submit their floor plans to Google Maps and when a mobile device user is in the vicinity of a venue with indoor maps available they can use the indoor maps to navigate the facility. Since GPS signals alone are not accurate enough for close proximity location and also are less reliable when indoors, Google Maps also uses triangulation with wireless carrier signal and known wifi hotspots to pinpoint the user’s location within several feet. It’s the very same scenario that was publicly condemned when the mall attempted to do it but is embraced when Google offers it as a free service!

The difference? Two factors. First and foremost (and for the purposes of this article) is the presence of consumer choice. Google offered a convenience feature which users can opt in or out at their pleasure whereas the malls could not offer the same voluntary conditions and still be able to accomplish the goal they sought to achieve. Second and a bit lesser in prominence is the question of intent. Consumers using their own mobile device are in full control of their personal data. Malls using consumers’ mobile device to track them present a sense of uneasiness because there are so many unknowns, such as how much data is being collected, how it is being used, and who else may have access to the data. With no options and little information provided in order to make a decision anyways, consumers feel they have no choice and are simply forced to submit to an authority which exercises no accountability for its actions.

This is the same perception that drives so much of the paranoia about government surveillance, the Transportation Security Administration and even pending copyright legislation. In each case, data is being collected but the processes and extent and even the genuine intent for such expansive measures are sheltered behind cloaks of national security or intellectual privacy. Instead of consumers, the targets are national citizens, subjected to procedures and invasions of privacy without adequate explanation of how it is expected to improve their life. These fears might be without merit but in the absence of transparency of the processes they are left to imagine the worst case scenarios. It’s not long before every single new development or technological advance is received with skepticism and accusations of being an Orwellian master plan packaged as a consumer convenience. Whether you trust your government’s intentions or not, simply because there is no opportunity to choose or opt out changes the perception of a benefit into a covert threat.

Take for instance another technology which may soon impact our lives in a more direct fashion than it has in the past… unmanned aerial vehicles. We’re very comfortable with this technology as it stands today. Unmanned remotely controlled flying drones swoop over battlefields providing close proximity aerial reconnaissance, telemetry for subsequent weapons targeting and in some cases are themselves equipped with light weaponry. They cost far less than a manned aircraft, are smaller, lighter, quieter and expendable. They protect our soldiers from most of the need to go into harm’s path and help to keep them safe when harm is necessary. We are comfortable with remote control drones flying overhead on the battlefield half a world away.

Currently the Federal Aviation Administration is considering regulations and standards which would allow the same technology to fly over our heads here at home. Police departments could survey much larger areas from above than they can accomplish on the ground. High-speed pursuits such as those we see on television would no longer require a police helicopter to aid in the pursuit. A police helicopter can cost more than $1.5 million plus the cost of operation, maintenance, and specialized training. A remote control surveillance drone could cost one twentieth the price and be easily deployed and controlled in high crime areas or anytime localized police presence is required. Utility companies could survey remote operations without the need to operate their own aircraft or charter aircraft to access inhospitable regions. Farmers and land management firms could spray crops, fight forest fires, perform geological surveys and protect vital assets without ever having to leave the home office and without putting human lives at risk.

Currently the FAA is tasked with determining the feasibility of allowing remote controlled drones to fly over populated areas. Protocols for safe altitude, loss of control mitigation and avoidance of tall obstacles as well as other drones are all factors that need to be considered. In the end, these are easily addressed. The stickier questions that are not exclusively the FAA’s to address are items such as: Who is licensed to operate UAVs in civilian airspace? What are the allowable purposes for such operation? What features could UAVs be equipped with and how will those be permitted to be used? How will the privacy of citizens be protected? If these are not addressed before the FAA decides, I can assure you they will become headline topping issues when citizens raise serious concerns about their privacy after infrared thermal camera-equipped drones with no agency markings are hovering around their house taking pictures. On top of which, what is to stop private citizens from building and operating their own drones? Or a hostile foreign power? Can these drones be weaponized? All valid concerns and when raised at this early stage can seem alarmist but by the same token once the technology is entrenched in our daily lives become much harder to address. It all comes back to a matter of choices – would I have the option to NOT be participatory in such pervasive aerial surveillance? When mandated from above, the answer is almost always ‘NO’.

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