ITxpo: Hello context-aware computing, goodbye privacy

The maintreaming of context-aware computing between now and 2015 will be driven by four data aggregators that are collecting personally identifiable transactional information on hundreds of millions of people. To stay competitive in this new era, businesses need to think about getting on board the train now, says Gartner Inc. research vice president William Clark. (I spoke with Clark recently about privacy in anticipation of his upcoming presentation on context-aware computing this afternoon at Gartner's Symposium/ITxpo conference.)

But the rise of these super-aggregators -- Apple, Nokia, Microsoft and Google -- will also change our notions of privacy forever. Users will move from protecting personal data to merely correcting it. We are entering a world in which informed consent and convenience trump privacy - so long as the data is accurate and we have the option to "opt out" in some cases.

The four horsemen of data aggregation are in a race to build out their mapping, location awareness, and search capabilities and to tie that into every person's social graph. "Context provisioning is walled garden 2.0. It's starting to work and it's an ugly, complicated, slippery mess," Clark says. To succeed aggregators have to pull off an "awesome" device user experience. "And you must have your hooks into your community."

Twenty four percent of consumers are willing to let aggregators get their hooks in, in exchange for context-aware services, with no questions asked -- at least if one believes a Garter survey of 200 consumers. Another 53% are willing and likely to opt in if it's at their discretion. Just 23% say the wouldn't participate.

By 2015, these four context provisioners will continuously track the "daily journeys and digital habits" of 10% of the developed world's population, Gartner predicts.

An intense amount of analytics is going on already with this information, Clark says. Tools will move beyond tracking where you've been to predicting what you'll do next. It's not rocket science: The habits of people's lives are very predictable, especially when the aggregators have lots of historical data to work with. So when you show up at that hotel, it may know where you'll eat, what you're most likely to order - even what your mood will be when you arrive.

Some aggregation arises from vertical integration. For example, one company that offers services to reduce fraud on credit cards is owned by B2B  mobile telecommunications and content provider Elephant Talk, which in turn is owned by the Dutch wireless service provider KPN International. KPN has access to location APIs for all 850 public wireless networks in the world, Clark says. "When you use your credit card they can see in a large grained or fine-grained way where you are. They are big brother. They know you used your credit card at a strip club," he says. What if one of their clients is your employer? Or your soon-to-be ex-wife's divorce lawyer?

Where does this all end? By the end of 2013 the explosion of context-aware information will be "right in everyone's faces," Clark says. When the big bang in contextual computing comes, ineffective opt-out mechanisms will lead the public to push back. Regulators will go into reactive mode.

But by then it will be too late to turn back the clock.

While lawmakers rush to come up with legislation to control what information may be collected and who can use it, the data will already have been collected, analyzed -- and monetized. Context-aware computing will have become big business. By 2015 40% of mobile users will have opted in (some perhaps unwittingly) to context service providers that track their activities, and $96 billion of spending worldwide (out of a total of $9 trillion) will be affected by contextual data, Gartner predicts.

Businesses want to use this data to sell you things you might like. The'll have what you want available, in-stock and ready for you before you know you want it. But the data can be used in other ways as well, such as by courts issuing subpoenas in divorce cases, or by a government bent on casting a wide surveillance net in order to catch domestic terrorists. And the industry itself already suffers in some quarters from a lack of respect for opt-out policy.

"By the time you see an avalanche of these cases it's going to be way too big money to shut down," Clark says.

The problem will be addressed, eventually. But the solution will come in the form of context brokers that will act in much the same way the credit reporting agencies do today, allowing people to view the data on file about them in order to "correct deductions made about their behavior." Erasing it won't be an option.

For better or worse, this new world is approaching rapidly, Clark says, and businesses need to adjust. He speaks Monday about what CIOs need to do to keep their companies competitive in the context-aware economy.

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