Foursquare — a smart-phone application that provides real-time, published geolocation — is riding a wave of popularity. The application allows users to indicate their present location, which is discoverable by others. People are encouraged to use the application by means of a series of meaningless “accomplishments” (e.g., being named “mayor” of a location for being the Foursquare user with the most registered visits) and partnerships with oh-so-clever businesses that provide trivial incentives like beverage discounts only to Foursquare users.
So why is this chilling?
Because I already see where this is going.
Picture this scenario. The spread of voluntary, social-media-inspired geolocation early in the 2010s lays the cultural framework for geolocation as an intrinsic good, with an able assist by tech companies that are happy to offer a few cheap baubles to eager users in exchange for the goldmine of data they provide. Later in the decade, a few forward-thinking lawmakers determine that as a cost-saving measure, certain classes of evildoers including child molesters and parolees, would be issued limited-access smart phones by the government with geolocation services continuously enabled and an implanted RFID chip to ensure that the phone was in the offender’s possession. Concerned parents could check Foursquare or a similar public geolocation service to track where the offenders are — in a generic sense, at first, but with increasing granularity after a few high-profile child rapes.
In 2019, a few larger companies require employees to use geolocation services to check in during off-site conference attendance, to ensure that the employee is actually attending the conference and isn’t simply taking a vacation on the company dime. Although some people grumble, the technology was sufficiently mainstreamed because of its origin in social media that discontent is fairly muted. A court challenge on free-association grounds is dismissed at the appellate level because the tracking devices are employer issued and the employee is free to seek other employment.
In 2023, after a series of well-publicized rescues for people using geolocation services, and as lines at airports mount, the federal government allows people to register for a national geolocation service, with special TSA lines for people who simply pass through security checkpoints much more quickly than their non-geolocated counterparts. Citizens are provided a generous tax credit for voluntarily participating in the program, and having been offered a free lunch as compensation for their liberty, they eagerly engorge themselves.
In 2027, as creeping expansion of mandatory geolocation gains steam, a series of high-profile serial killings in New York City prompts the NYC government to require all New Yorkers to continuously enable broadcast geolocation or pay a hefty fine. The matter is taken to court by civil libertarians, who lose on a twofold finding that the public safety is enhanced by by mandatory geolocation and that the widespread social adoption of voluntary, published geolocation makes “location” an attribute that is not subject to a high level of personal privacy protection under the Fourth Amendment.
A dystopian nightmare? Probably not. The pattern repeats itself time and again — as the market socializes new expectations on the electorate, the public desensitizes to the implications of the change. Call it market-assisted incrementalism, if you wish. It seems people will gladly trade their souls for the chance to be named mayor of the Burger King at the corner of First and Main and thereby obtain a $5 gift certificate.
But consider this cautionary tale: Before 9/11, institutions as diverse as banks and departments of motor vehicles did not routinely capture a person’s residential address; it was sufficient that a valid mailing address was provided. But the terrorists struck, and the people — fearing another attack — agreed to sweeping restrictions on individual anonymity. Today, a financial institution is prohibited from opening an account for a person without knowing that person’s residential address. Although there are certainly benefits to this regulation, there are also downsides — and one of them is that a citizen is no longer free to engage in substantial aspects of white-market economy without wholesale public disclosure of substantial personal information.
For example, a person who wished to keep his residential address private used to have recourse to Post Office boxes or private mail boxes through companies like Mailboxes Etc. Today, disclosure of a residential address is mandatory for banking or possessing a driver license. And guess what? Driving records are, in some jurisdictions, public records, and can be pulled by anyone in most states upon payment of a modest fee.
Do I care if people know where I am? Not really. But that’s also not the point, which is this: Products like Foursquare and the new geolocation tagging in Twitter and Google Buzz are making something that is intrinsically personal, a matter of public record, and this trend reduces the chance that in the future, we may voluntarily opt-out of the new geo-located social reality.
As John Derbyshire would say … “We are doomed.”