Cool Tech and the Privacy Trap: Tile Edition

Tile is a really cool new device that has been getting some massive early funding and advertising.

Awesome, right? Attach one of these to your keys, to your remote, to your bike, to your laptop, to your child, to anything you’re worried about  misplacing, losing, or having stolen.

In fact, one of the very coolest features is that when you can’t find something (they use the example of  a stolen bike in the video) you can register the Tile corresponding to that item as lost and every other user of the application will immediately ping your phone with GPS coordinates of your lost Tile should they happen to venture within range. That’s really pretty amazingly awesome, if you’ve got an ecosystem of users dense enough for it to be practically useful, and the crucial network effects clearly demonstrate why they are pushing so hard with the advertising campaign.

But then there’s that funny bit about attaching one of these to a person, like your child. Or, you know, like your ex-girlfriend. Stick one on the bottom of her car, register the Tile as lost and Presto! you’ve turned the entire Tile ecosystem into your stalker allies. Thus we see, once more, the double-edged sword that is information technology. It lets you know a lot of stuff and the meaning of that phrase, it turns out, is highly ambiguous and context-dependent.

Of course there are steps Tile can take to mitigate the chances of their tool being used for stalking and other nefarious purposes. Perhaps the device could have been even smaller, but they chose this size because it’s small enough to be convenient but not so tiny as to be really, truly concealable. (Of course, their competitors might not make the same choice.) Maybe they will deactivate public reporting of “lost” Tiles for a set time period after the Tile is first reported on the public network. That would be smart, but it doesn’t come without a cost (what if you can’t get to your genuinely lost item before the reporting expires?) and, of course, it still leaves room for abuse. Want a little assurance that your burglary won’t be interrupted: the cost of a Tile is cheap and you’ll be able to monitor the homeowners as they run errands for a few hours while you’ve got the house to yourself.

I’ve only been thinking about this for a couple of minutes, and that’s two pretty good uses for criminal intent I’ve got already. I’m sure there are others.

I still think it’s a really cool device–and especially the lost-item feature–but it definitely makes you think. When is the trade-off worth it? And are we kidding ourselves if we even think that the trend is optional or within our control?

1 thought on “Cool Tech and the Privacy Trap: Tile Edition”

  1. Any technology has the unfortunate potential for abuse. Your smartphone with a camera and an Internet connection isn’t even the start.

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