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.