Nokia's Trapster is too far over the freaky line

Why trust is the new currency in Age of Context and why Nokia lost it here.

In the Age of Context lots of companies will go over the freaky line. What is that line? Where at least some people are uncomfortable with the privacy implications of the service. At EVERY speech I’ve given about our new book privacy comes up and people tell me they are scared by this new world that we’re heading into where systems like Google Now help you based on all sorts of private data, from where you are standing to who has sent you airline plans.

But there are some “over the freaky line” concerns that are actually valid because they could put users into real harm. I believe this is one such case.

Figuring out where the freaky line is is one of a product designer’s top jobs in 2014 (and really this falls on corporate leadership in the CEO and CMO office, which increasingly will gain power over the IT budgets in the future, I believe).

Lately I’ve been looking at location-based services to make sure I didn’t miss anything that is important in the Age of Context we’re headed into (if you haven’t read the book Shel Israel and I wrote about the future of mobile, titled “Age of Context,” you really should because it’ll get you up to speed on how data from location, social, mobile, and sensors are being fused together and what this means for the future of privacy) and I looked back at Trapster. I thought it might have been killed by now, in the shadow of Waze, which, at least in San Francisco area, does a LOT better job (Waze is now owned by Google and some of the data reported by users on Waze now shows up on Google Maps but that data doesn’t come close to the freakiness of what Trapster shares with other people).

But Trapster is still alive and is being pushed by Nokia. Trapster still has a team with a budget of millions of dollars per year being poured into it by Nokia and dozens of employees. In fact, on April 30, 2013, on the Trapster blog it shows they have 30 employees.

What I found, though, scared me and showed me a company too far over the freaky line to be safe. Trapster is similar to Waze in that it lets drivers report cops, accidents, and other hazards which are shared with other drivers. I hadn’t used Trapster in a while because Waze has thousands of times more users in San Francisco and cities I’ve tried both on. Waze isn’t over the freaky line the way Trapster is which you’ll see in a moment.

Here’s what’s going on: Trapster shows your driving behavior on other people’s mobile phones as a blue line. A traceable path. Waze doesn’t do that, Trapster does. The blue line is there to show people that someone has just driven there and hasn’t reported any cops or other driving problems. The thing is this blue line sticks around for hours (I believe two, in my testing) and can be captured as a friend did on my account. He called me after I reported a cop and said “hey, did you just make a U Turn?”

Why yes I did. “Oh, how did you know that?” I asked. “I’m watching you on Trapster.”

Turns out that because Trapster has so few users it’s easy to “stalk” individual users based on these blue lines (I have several examples of where friends of mine and me have “stalked” users as they drive around town in real time). Especially if they use their real name as their user name, like I do. But even if not, if you know where someone lives or works you can easily figure out who different blue lines belong to. I did this to one employee who works at Trapster as I watched him drive home. These blue lines even continue after you stop driving and I can see what stores you visited and where you walked, even.

Competitor Waze doesn’t do that and when I’ve talked with Waze officials they tell me they are careful not to show your car exactly where it is in real time to other drivers, either, to keep stalkers from “attaching” themselves to you and following you around. In fact, in my testing, Waze obfuscates your real location in a pretty deep way and doesn’t show you at home or at work. Trapster, on the other hand, starts sharing your blue line as soon as you get up to about 35 miles per hour and shows everywhere you go, see screen shots below for more.

This is a case where a product designer hasn’t put enough privacy into the system and isn’t clear enough with the risks involved.

I’m getting more and more attuned to this problem because of all the speeches I’ve given because of the book I wrote. Yesterday, for instance, I talked with product designers at Expedia (company that helps travelers with their plans), and they are feeling pressure to come up with new cool location-based features, but that team is very focused on privacy fears because they know that many people will switch products because of lack of trust and aren’t willing to take huge risks in order to put new features in place. The conversations I’m having with companies like Expedia and Ford and Ritz Carlton execs show that privacy is a HUGE concern in corporate world because they know that it could piss off rafts of customers if they get it wrong.

The thing is they know there is value in going over the freaky line too and are watching as companies like Uber ask customers to share a HUGE amount of location data in order to build new billion-dollar businesses. Uber knows where you are standing, for instance, a few years ago THAT would have been “over the freaky line” for a limo company to ask for. But Uber doesn’t share that data with the public so isn’t nearly as freaky as Trapster is (and Uber even takes other steps to protect privacy and make it hard to stalk people who use its service. For instance it uses the Twilio API to obfuscate phone numbers from your driver).

What do I recommend to companies to make sure they gain trust when doing over the freaky line stuff?

1. Disclose EVERYTHING you are doing to gather data. Visit Google, for instance, at its privacy site at http://google.com/privacy — it shows everything it collects on you. I couldn’t find clear wording on Trapster’s info screens, privacy policy, terms of use that your location will be shared with other people. Plus, even after your blue lines disappear, we aren’t sure whether that data is kept on Trapster’s servers and for how long. What happens to that data? Is it given over to government authorities (I bet it will be turned over if a court order is received).

2. Make the data correctable. If it made a false assumption, make that correctable too. One app noticed I live on a golf course and kept showing me info about golf. I hate golf. Don’t have any interest in playing or lessons but there was no way to shut the app up. Same thing on Trapster. Once I realized my data was being shared in public I couldn’t correct it to make it to my liking. I couldn’t hide my blue line when I got close to things I might care about keeping private, like my son’s schools, my home, or my work.

3. Let me turn it off. I couldn’t figure out how to make it not share my blue line with others in Trapster’s case. Maybe there’s a setting somewhere I missed, but I couldn’t find it and if I can’t find it other users can’t find it either. With such “freaky” data, though, that could lead to really nasty consequences product designers have to be far more careful in order to gain my trust.

That’s the rub. By doing something freaky and not putting me in control (and not giving me enough utility to make being that far over the freaky line worth it) Nokia has lost my trust.

I no longer believe that Nokia is a company that can properly guide us into the age of context and that should be frightening to executives at that company since they no longer have the phone business to fall back on. Nokia should be leading us into this new age where even Mercedes is building a contextual car and Nokia should be showing all of us how to go over the freaky line in a responsible, trusted, way.

This is why Google has gotten so many scared with its acquisitions of robot, artificial intelligence, and home automation companies recently. What new risks to our lives will show up because of all of this surveillance-era technology? We don’t yet know and are looking to companies to carefully build new products that have great utility with a minimum of risk to us personally.

This lack of care with over-the-freaky-line privacy features from a company as important as Nokia is definitely troubling. Here’s some screen shots that show why Trapster is over the freaky line.

Trapster shows where people walk inside stores and in parking lots
Trapster shows where people walk inside stores and in parking lots
Here you can see a user, Paraminder, drive to work on Trapster.
Here you can see a user, Paraminder, drive to work on Trapster.
Trapster potentially shares personal info with everyone, including user names. Not dangerous here, but matched up with blue lines on other screen shots it certainly is.
Trapster potentially shares personal info with everyone, including user names. Not dangerous here, but matched up with blue lines on other screen shots it certainly is.

Why I got Highlight wrong (and how Bluetooth Low Energy might save it)

Back in March 2012 I hyped up Highlight something fierce.

I thought it was going to be the next big app. I was wrong. Should have picked Snapchat (which I didn’t see coming because I personally don’t need it very much).

Highlight just hasn’t proven to be very addictive to either me or my friends. We talk about it often. I keep running it.

Now, what did they do right? They did fix their battery issues. It doesn’t put a major strain on my battery anymore. It does have some users, it’s just that the user count isn’t going up very fast and the UTILITY hasn’t gotten to where I thought it would.

Why not?

It has the chat room problem.

What is the chat room problem? I wrote back in 2009 that I’ve noticed that chat rooms get less interesting over time.

Why? Because chat rooms drag in new users (even interesting new users reduce the quality of an already-existing conversation). Eventually they drag in uninteresting users, even spammers and trolls.

Highlight hasn’t gotten that bad, but in talking with tons of users about it I think it tried to solve the wrong social problem: we simply don’t want to meet random people. If we did want to do that we’d just walk up to random people in the street and introduce ourselves.

This is why it has a chat room problem: when Highlight started out it was full of interesting people. Mostly A list bloggers and people at SXSW. In other words, people like me. People that I’d hang out with anyway.

I assumed that as more people used it the quality would remain the same. HORRID assumption on my part. Back when it started I had lots of interesting conversations because of Highlight and the people who were walking by me were people like Jack Dorsey. Today? Not so much.

I screwed up by getting it wrong with Highlight, so I’m sorry.

Now, what DO we want to do? I’ve seen this over and over again: people love it if you step up their experience. No one turns down an upgrade to business class in a plane. But Highlight doesn’t do that. It is too random.

Highlight just shows you other people near you and brings a lot of noise into your life. If Paul made one small change it could radically change and there’s a new technology that would help him do this: Smart Bluetooth, AKA “BLE — Bluetooth Low Energy — radios, er, Beacons.”

What is the change I’m recommending to Paul he makes?

Instead of bringing random people into my life, bring only people my existing friends have spent at least an hour with.

“Huh?”

The people who can step up my experience are those who have a common set of experiences with people I know. Think about it. How often did a total stranger come into your life to make your evening better? Not very often. But the friend of your friend? That happens all the time. On Tuesday I’m taking someone I don’t know to a special winery in Napa. Why? My friend asked me to “step up this guy’s experience.”

That very rarely happens with total strangers. There has to be a common tie for you to go out of your way to drive four hours and make a ton of phone calls to help someone else.

Now, how does Low Energy Bluetooth fit in? This new technology is now in every iPhone with iOS 7. I have given tons of speeches lately about our new book, “Age of Context” and very few people know what these are, even though they are carrying them. These little radios spit a number into the air every second. They use very little battery (the ones from recent Y Combinator graduate Estimote run for two years on a coin battery, for instance).

Why is this important? Well, with Apple’s iOS 7 Apple added a software layer called “iBeacon.” Here’s an article in Gigaom about iBeacon.

So, now, if Highlight added this capability, it would be able to add a feature where it would know who you spend the most time with. Then it could filter out everyone who hasn’t spent time with your actual friends (or at least push the random folks down so the high utility folks are at top). See, if I meet someone who really knows my best friends then I want to meet them too. But Facebook doesn’t have enough signal to really do this. BLE would. It also would let Highlight add innovative new features like “it looks like you are in a conference or event, because you are in a high density of people.”

Basically these radios tell your iPhone how close you are to another user. You can even make it so that your iPhone could “count” how many minutes that person is standing with you. You could even write other algorithms that would know the context. Did you spend that time with that other person in a church? Shopping mall? Bar? Work? Were you in a group, or just face-to-face? All that is now possible thanks to BLE.

If Paul turns Highlight into a contextual app, instead of a purely “meet random people you might like” app, it might have a chance of getting people excited again. For now, though, it’s one of those apps I keep on my phone just because I don’t have the heart to admit I was totally wrong. I hope that Paul figures out how to save Highlight for me before I totally get to the place where I delete it forever.

How about you? Do you get utility from Highlight? If you already deleted it, why did you? Am I on the right track here?

Here comes the age of the "personal cloud"

Here Scott McGregor, CEO of Broadcom, shows me some new wireless devices, based on Low Power Bluetooth, which will be the “hub” of a new kind of “personal cloud” that will connect sensors and wearable computers to our smartphones of the future. These devices can support hundreds of other wireless devices, each with sensors, lights, or controllers for things on us or around us. This has deep implications for our contextual future (I’m writing a book, titled “Age of Context”).

These new devices will cost less than $10 (wholesale) and run on a small battery for a year or more.

On this topic, I think the personal cloud is going to be hugely important at the Techcrunch Disrupt event coming up in September: don’t miss our Techcrunch Disrupt Google Glass developer contest. We’re giving away $10,000 to try to help developers take advantage of what Scott’s showing us here. Details on that are here — entry ends September 5 and we’ll announce the winner at the end of Techcrunch Disrupt, which is in San Francisco September 7-11.

At Techcrunch Disrupt we’ll be doing interviews all three days in our studio (which will be right by the front door). If you haven’t gotten your ticket yet for Disrupt, use this link to get a discount and use ScobledSF13 as the code.

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Y Combinator company, Estimote, shows why Low Energy Bluetooth is so important as an enabler for the future of the personal cloud.

+Estimote was one of the hot new companies to come out of the latest batch of Y Combinator, the famous Silicon Valley incubator.

Here you see its new product, Estimote Beacons, which is a small, wireless device, sometimes also called a ‘mote.’ When placed in a physical space, it broadcasts tiny radio signals around itself.

Think about it as a very small lighthouse. Smartphones that are in range are able to ‘hear’ these signals and estimate their location very precisely, as well as communicate with the beacon to exchange data and information.

Here you hear cofounder/CEO Jakub Krzych.

This company is hugely important for the contextual future that’s coming quickly.

Come meet the disrupters, like this guy (and enter our Google Glass dev contest, win $10,000 cash)

The crowdfunding revolution is well underway and has helped many companies get started on both Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Here you meet IndieGogo cofounder Slava Rubin who tells me about what’s happening with Indiegogo now. In the next video you’ll meet a company that’s using Indiegogo to raise money.

You can meet more people like this at Techcrunch Disrupt in San Francisco. Coming up September 7-11. I’ll have a studio at the front door, come by and say hi.

There still is time to get tickets, just visit this link.

Finally, we’re having a developer contest for those of you who are building apps for Google Glass. Winner gets $10,000 cash. Enter here.

Learning more about our advertising future in Google Glass world

Google Glass welcome here

How could Google Glass change advertising? Well, today it was revealed that there might be a “pay per glaze” style of advertising.

Here I talk with Sahil Jain, CEO of AdStage, about the future of advertising. Interesting conversation.

Interesting conversation about what advertising might look like on Google Glass.

By the way, the photo here is from my brother’s bar. I believe his is the first bar to welcome Google Glass wearers. Story here.

This weekend I’ll be at a Google Glass hackathon. You can learn more here. The future of commerce, and all that, will definitely be on the table. Speaking of commerce, you really need to check out what Tapingo is doing. Imagine you are a college kid, you wake up, leave your dorm, and Google Glass asks you “would you like your usual coffee?” You answer “OK Glass, yes, have my regular coffee ready.” Tapingo has your order waiting at your favorite coffee shop. Don’t believe that can happen? It’s already happening on dozens of college campuses this fall. Check out the CEO explaining how it works:

Finally, Rackspace is laying some cash down to help make this future come about. At the Techcrunch Disrupt conference we will hold a Google Glass developer conference where we’ll give $10,000 cash to the winner. More details in about a week. But please join me there and let me know if you’d like to participate. scobleizer@gmail.com

I have arranged a $100 off discount code ScobledSF13 for Techcrunch Disrupt, too.

The future is coming, will your business be ready the way Tapingo and AdStage’s are?

The kinds of innovation Google Glass will bring

CrowdOptic‘s developers are one of a handful of folks who are pushing new kinds of location features thanks to the new sensor platform that is known as Google Glass. Glass is the first consumer product that can share where you are looking. CrowdOptic does something similar by just using the cameras. Add the two together and I think we’ll see some wild new things that will only be possible with Glass. This video gives us a little taste.

Are you building anything? At Techcrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, coming up September 7, Rackspace and I going to have a Glass App developer’s contest. More on that after all the lawyers sign off on it. I’m off to Australia to meet with startups next week in Sydney. Hope to see you there!

My writeup of Moto X, over on guest post on The Next Web

I wrote up a long post about how Google is over the freaky line with its introduction of Moto X.

I now have one of the devices in my hands and I’ll have a lot more to say about it when I get back from Australia next Friday. It’s quite nice and stands up well to all the other modern phones, including the Samsung Galaxy S4 that I’m currently using (and my son’s iPhone 5).

But you should read my guest post about why Google is over the freaky line. It got a lot of discussion and kudos on Twitter and elsewhere.