Tag Archives: smart phones

No longer lost in the crowd? How people's location and movement is being tracked

Up until relatively recently tracking the location and movement of individuals was a slow, labour-intensive, partial and difficult process.  The only way to spatially track an individual was to follow them in person and to quiz those with whom they interacted.  As a result, people’s movement was undocumented unless there was a specific reason to focus on them through the deployment of costly resources.  Even if a person was tracked, the records tended to be partial, bulky, difficult to cross-tabulate, aggregate and analyze, and expensive to store.

A range of new technologies has transformed geo-location tracking to a situation where the monitoring of location is pervasive, continuous, automatic and relatively cheap, it is straightforward to process and store data, and easy to build up travel profiles and histories.  This is especially the case in cities, where these technologies are mostly deployed, though some operate pretty much everywhere.  Here are eleven (updated from 7 in original post) examples.

1.  Many cities are saturated with remote controllable digital CCTV cameras that can zoom, move and track individual pedestrians.  In addition, large parts of the road network and the movement of vehicles are surveyed by traffic, red-light, congestion and toll cameras.  Analysis and interpretation of CCTV footage is increasingly aided by facial, gait and automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) using machine vision algorithms.  Several police forces in cities in the UK have rolled out CCTV facial recognition programmes (1,2), as have cities in the U.S., including New York and Chicago (each with over 24,000 cameras) and San Diego (who are also using smartphones with facial recognition installed) (3).  ANPR cameras are installed in many cities for monitoring traffic flow, but also for administrating traffic violations such as the non-payment of road tolls and congestion charging.  There are an estimated 8,300 ANPR cameras across the UK capturing 30 million number plates each day (15).

2.  Smart phones continuously communicate their location to telecommunications providers, either through the cell masts they connect to, or the sending of GPS coordinates, or their connections to wifi hotspots.  Likewise, smart phone apps can access and transfer such information and also share them to third parties.  With respect to the latter Leszczynski’s analysis (14) of the data generated by The Wall Street Journal in 2011 (4) details that 25 out 50 iPhone apps, and 21 of 50 Android apps transmitted location data to a third party other than the app developer.  Of these, 19 of the iPhone apps and 13 of the Android apps did not require locational data as a functional requirement.  Half the iPhone and a third of the Android apps did not request consent for passing on the locational data.  These locational data are shared with advertisers and utilised by data brokers to create user profiles. For example, ‘Verizon have a product called Precision Market Insights that let businesses track cell phone users in particular locations’ (5).  It sells data ‘about its cell phone users’ “age range, gender and zip codes for where they live, work, shop and more” as well as information about mobile-device habits’ including URL visits, app downloads and usage, browsing trends and more’ (5).

3.  In a number of cities sensor networks have been deployed across street infrastructure such as bins and lampposts to capture and track phone identifiers such as MAC addresses.  In London, Renew installed such sensors on 200 bins, capturing in a single week in 2014 identifiers from 4,009,676 devices and tracking these as they moved from bin to bin (6).  The company reported that they could measure the proximity, speed, and manufacturer of a device and track the stores individuals visited, how long they stayed there, and how loyal customers are to particular shops, using the information to show contextual adverts on LCD screens installed on the bins (6).  The same technology is also used within malls and shops to track shoppers, sometimes linking with CCTV to capture basic demographic information such as age and gender (7, 8).

4.  Similarly, some cities have installed a wifi mesh, either to provide public wifi or to create a privileged emergency response and relief communication system in the event of an urban disaster or for general surveillance.  In the case of public wifi the IDs of the devices which access the networked are captured and can be tracked between wifi points.  In the case of an emergency/police mesh access might not be granted to the network, however each network access point can capture the device IDs, device type, apps installed, as well as the locational history (9). Such a wifi mesh, with 160 nodes, was installed by the Seattle Police Department in 2013 (9).  The locational history of previous wifi access points is revealed because a wifi-enabled device broadcasts the name of every network it has connected to previously in order to try and find one it can connect to automatically.  Such data reveals the movement of device owners between locations, revealing the sites of popular spots such as home, work, and where they shop.  Beyond a wifi-mesh, anyone with a wi-fi adapter in monitor mode and a packet capture utility can capture such data (12).

5.  Many buildings use smart card tracking, with unique identifiers installed either through barcodes or embedded RFID chips.  Cards are used for access control to different parts of the building and to register attendance, but can also be used as an electronic purse to pay for items within the facility.  Smart card tracking is becoming increasingly common in many schools to track and trace student movements, activities and food consumption (10).  Smart cards are also used to access and pay for public transport, such as the Leapcard in Dublin or the Oyster Card in London. Each reading of the card adds to the database of movement within a campus or across a city.

6.  New vehicles are routinely fitted with GPS that enables the on-board computers to track location, movement, and speed.  These devices can be passive and store data locally to be downloaded for analysis at a latter point, or be active, communicating in real-time via cellular or satellite networks to another device or data centre.  Active GPS tracking is commonly used in fleet management to track goods vehicles, public transport and hire cars, or to monitor cars on a payment plan to ensure that it can be traced and recovered in cases of default, or in private cars as a means of theft recovery.   Moreover, cars are increasingly being fitted with unique ID transponders that are used for the automated operation and payment of road tolls and car parking.  Again, each use of the transponder is logged, creating a movement data trail, though with a larger spatial and temporal granularity (at selected locations).

7.  There are also many other staging points where we might leave an occasional trace of our movement and activities, such as using ATMs, or a credit card in a store, or checking a book out of a library.

UPDATE: I’ve had three further ways of tracking people pointed out to me (thanks Linda, Stephen, Jim) and I also thought of one more.  Plus I’ve updated method 4 (thanks Paul-Olivier).

8.  Selected populations — such as people on probation, prisoners on home leave, people with dementia, children — are being electronically tagged to enable tracking.  Typically this done using a GPS-enabled bracelet that periodically transmits location and status information via a wireless telephone network to a monitoring system.  In other cases, it is possible to install tracker apps onto a phone (of say children) so the phone location can be tracked, or to buy a family tracking service from telecoms providers (11)

9. Another form of staging point is the use of the Internet, such as browsing or sending email, where the IP address of the computer reveals the approximate location from which it is connected.  Typically this does not have a fine spatial resolution (mile to city or region scale), but does show sizable shifts of location between places.

10.  Another set of staging points can be revealed from the geotagging (using the device GPS) and time/date stamping of photos and social media posted on the internet and recorded in their associated metadata.  This has more spatial resolution than IP addresses and is also accompanied with other contextual information such as the content of the photo/post.  Such data can be used in interesting ways such as tackling cyber-bullying by revealing the location of posters (13).

11.  Location and movement can also be voluntarily shared by individuals through online calenders, most of which are private but nonetheless stored in the cloud, and some of which are shared openly or with colleagues.

As these examples demonstrate, those companies and agencies who run these technologies possess a vast quantity of highly detailed spatial behaviour data from which lots of other insights can be inferred (such as mode of travel, activity, and lifestyle).  These data can also be shared between data brokers and third parties and combined with other personal and contextual information.  For example, Angwin (5) has identified 58 data brokers in the mobile and location tracking business in the US, only 11 of which offered opt-outs (in total she found 212 data brokers operating in the US that consolidated and traded data about people, only 92 of which allowed opt-outs – 65 of which required handing over additional data to secure the opt-out).  Moreover, these data can be accessed by the police and security forces through warrants or more surreptitiously.  The consequence is that individuals are no longer lost in the crowd, but rather they are being tracked and traced at different scales of spatial and temporal resolution, and are increasingly becoming open to geo-targeted profiling for advertising and social sorting.

If you can think of other ways location/mobility is being tracked, please leave a comment – thanks.

Rob Kitchin

(1)  Graham, S. (2011) Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism.  Verso, London.
(2)  Gardham, M. (2015) Controversial face recognition software is being used by Police Scotland, the force confirms. Herald Scotland, 26th May http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/13215304.Controversial_face_recognition_software_is_being_used_by_Police_Scotland__the_force_confirms/
(3)  Wellman, T. (2015) Facial Recognition Software Moves From Overseas Wars to Local Police. New York Times, 12th August. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/13/us/facial-recognition-software-moves-from-overseas-wars-to-local-police.html
(4)  http://blogs.wsj.com/wtk-mobile/
(5)  Angwin, J. (2014) Dragnet Nation. St Martin’s Press, New York
(6)  Vincent, J. (2014) London’s bins are tracking your smartphone. The Independent. June 10th http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/updated-londons-bins-are-tracking-your-smartphone-8754924.html
(7)  Kopytoff, V. (2013) Stores Sniff Out Smartphones to Follow Shoppers, Technology Review, Nov 12th http://www.technologyreview.com/news/520811/stores-sniff-out-smartphones-to-follow-shoppers/
(8)  Henry, A. (2013) How Retail Stores Track You Using Your Smartphone (and How to Stop It). Lifehacker, 19 July, http://lifehacker.com/how-retail-stores-track-you-using-your-smartphone-and-827512308
(9)  Hamm, D. (2013) Seattle police have a wireless network that can track your every move. Kirotv.com, 23 November. http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/seattle-police-have-wireless-network-can-track-you/nbmHW/ cited in Leszczynski, A. (forthcoming) Geoprivacy.  In Kitchin, R., Lauriault, T. And Wilson, M. (eds) Understanding Spatial Media. Sage, London.
(10) Goodman, M. (2015) Future Crimes: A Journey to the Dark Side of Technology – and How to Survive It.  Bantam Press, New York.
(11) see http://gizmodo.com/how-to-stalk-a-cheater-using-satellites-and-cell-phones-1546627447
(12) Gallagher, S. (2014) Where’ve you been? Your smartphone’s Wi-Fi is telling everyone. Ars Technica, Nov 5th, http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/11/where-have-you-been-your-smartphones-wi-fi-is-telling-everyone/
(13) Riotta, C. (2015) How Facebook and Twitter Geotagging Is Exposing Racist Trolls in Real Life.  Tech.mic, Dec 2nd, http://mic.com/articles/129506/how-facebook-and-twitter-geotagging-is-exposing-racist-trolls-in-real-life
(14) Leszczynski, A. (forthcoming) Geoprivacy.  In Kitchin, R., Lauriault, T. And Wilson, M. (eds) Understanding Spatial Media. Sage, London.
(15) Weaver, M. (2015) Warning of backlash over car number plate camera network. The Guardian, 27 Nov. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/nov/26/warning-of-outcry-over-car-numberplate-camera-network

Hailo, Uber and the deregulation of Ireland's taxi industry

This afternoon’s black cab blockade of London comes in response to car ride apps that are changing the character of the city’s taxi industry. While there has been little visible backlash against comparable services in Ireland, it seems only a matter of time before these struggles find their way to our shores.

The market-leading smart phone taxi service in Ireland is Hailo. Self-described as “the evolution of the hail”, Hailo was founded in November 2011 by three London taxi drivers and three entrepreneurs. It launched in Dublin, its second city, in July 2012 and as of mid-2014, provides sporadic coverage across the country with a specific attention on areas of high population density.

HailO dominates in Dublin by Brandon Zeman

To use Hailo as a potential passenger, one needs simply to download and launch their free smart phone application. To use the Hailo as a driver, things are a little more complicated. One must sign up using a geographically specific online portal (such as exists for London, Ireland, New York, Boston and Tokyo). Registration is restricted to licensed taxi drivers such that Hailo is effectively leveraging the screening procedures of existing small public service vehicle (SPSV) infrastructure in Ireland. Of Dublin’s 12,000 registered taxi drivers, I’ve been told that about half are using the service.

In this post I will describe two observations on the role Hailo plays in Dublin: that it competes with existing taxi infrastructure, and that it capitalises on and potentially extends the deregulation of transportation in the city. I will briefly compare the service to Uber and Lyft, and argue why their competition will likely bring the taxi wars to Dublin.

Hailo competes with existing taxi infrastructure

In addition to plying for hire (being in motion and available for hire) and standing for hire (being stationary and available for hire), taxi drivers can increase their number of fares by enrolling to a radio service. When a customer phones a taxi company, this company then leverages its radio-enabled network to source an available taxi driver. Cab drivers working in Dublin have told me that subscription to such a service can cost as much as €5,000 per year. This service is dependent upon a radio communications unit being physically installed into driver’s vehicle, the hire of which is presumably incorporated into the cost of the service.

Hailo, in drawing upon already existing smart phone usage, does not need to install any radio communications infrastructure. This means lower fixed capital costs and lower associated installation and maintenance costs. Furthermore, by having software perform the role of the radio operator, there are presumably fewer attendant labour costs.

These factors lead to a considerably different pricing model. Rather than charge a yearly subscription fee, Hailo is free to install and use, but charges a 12% commission on every fare sourced through the application. In order to compete with these rates, a €5,000 per year radio service would need to direct €41,667 worth of fares to each driver. Understandably, Hailo poses a considerable threat to Dublin’s taxi radio companies.

There is however an important geographical caveat which needs to be made. In cities such as Dublin – where there is a confluence of high population density, a high number of taxis per head and a high usage of smart phones – the benefits of Hailo to both drivers and passengers outweigh those offered by taxi radio companies. In a geographical location where taxi or smart phone use is more sparsely distributed however, Hailo has less opportunity to draw upon existing infrastructure. Where I work in Maynooth – a small university town 20 kilometres west of Dublin – it is very difficult to find a taxi using Hailo. In such locations both spatial scarcity and community loyalty lead me to suppose far less competition between Hailo and existing taxi radio services. In these instances, the volume of jobs rather than rate of commission is the important factor.

Hailo availability in Dublin versus Maynooth

Competing SPSV smart phone service Uber, which has been recently valued at a truly astounding $18.2bn1, launched in Dublin in January 2014. Uber operates under a business model which is far more challenging to existing taxi infrastructures as a whole. Rather than recruit taxi drivers exclusively, Uber is open to private hire vehicle (or limousine) drivers as well. Less regulation on the cost of limousine services allows the company to employ a surge pricing model, so that fares can cost considerably more than a standard rate (up to as much as eight times more expensive in rare incidences of peak demand). The cost of an SPSV licence for limousines in Ireland is only €250, compared to the €6,300 for a taxi licence. While cars must still be deemed as fit for such a purpose, and drivers must similarly undergo clearance by An Garda Síochána, Uber hopes that its matchmaking infrastructure for limousine services will allow its service to compete favourably with the taxi industry as a whole. It’s probably too soon to draw any conclusions on the success of the company in Dublin, but you can be sure they are here for the long run. Uber have money to burn and their CEO Travis Kalanick has a combative attitude toward vested interests.

Hailo capitalises on and potentially extends the deregulation of transportation in the city

As described above Hailo is most effective in urban areas where there is already considerable competition amongst taxi drivers. Uptake amongst drivers is dependent upon a pull effect, whereby not using the service would render them excluded from a proportion of the passenger market. There is, as such, a supply-and-demand-like positive feedback loop between the driver and passenger applications. Increased use of the application by one group would be expected to result in an increase in use by the other.

It was not always so easy to hail a taxi in Dublin. Between 1978 and 2000 local authorities in Ireland were entitled to limit the number of taxi licences issued in their area. In Dublin, the number of licences in circulation between 1978 and 1988 was fixed at 1,800. This number was increased slowly through the late 1980s and 1990s to around 2,800 by the end of the decade. Supply was not kept up with demand however. By the late 1990s the cost of purchasing a licence on the open market was as much as €100,000. In line with its commitment to improving Dublin’s taxi services, the Action Programme for the Millennium encouraged the issuance of 3,100 new licences in the city in November 1999. This was not found to be enough however, as one year later, on November 21, 2000, S.I No. 367/20002 lifted licensing regulations in Ireland. This had the immediate effect of devaluing existing licences and subsequent enquiries and legal cases have been undertaken to assess the fairness of this deregulation. The change has had its intended effect however. By 2008, union estimates placed the number of taxi licences nationwide at 19,000 with 12,000 of those being held in Dublin. Locals tell me that these days it is much easier to get a cab home after a night out than it was in the 1990s.

Under conditions where taxi drivers do not have to compete so vigorously for fares (under a licence-restricted, consortium-based or heavily unionised model rather than the predominantly individualised system currently in operation in Ireland), there would be little pressure for them to use Hailo. And as I’ve already argued, no drivers using the service would translate to no passengers using it either. Indeed it is quite clear from various interviews and media appearances that Hailo have made tactical decisions about how and in which cities they introduce their service.

While Hailo takes advantage of such spaces of deregulation, it has been careful so far to adhere to local legislation. The service does not on its own necessitate a further deregulation of the SPSV sector in Ireland. Hailo is not unique however. Competitors include the globe-spanning Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, Wingz, Summon and Flywheel in the USA, cab:app, Cab4Now, Get Taxi and Kabbee in London and Chauffeur-Privé in France. These transportation network companies compete on a range of business models, services and geographical coverage. This marketplace of competing car ride apps has the potential to push against regulations which are in place to control regional SPSV sectors in Ireland.

Consider the following examples from what’s been called the taxi wars.

Since March 2014, Republican Senator Marco Rubio has been pushing for the deregulation of the limousine industry in Miami, Florida specifically to make way for the introduction of Uber. The taxi and limousine industry in Miami-Dade county is strongly regulated. The industry caters to a population of over 2,500,000 people through 2,121 taxi medallions (which is the equivalence of a vehicle licence in Ireland). This has forced the market price of a medallion to around $340,000, 28% of which are owned by taxi drivers. Similarly, limousines licences are limited to 625 in number. Services must be booked an hour in advance with rides costing a minimum of $70. This regulation is directly restrictive of Uber’s business model. After Senator Rubio’s efforts to clear the company’s way stalled, actor Ashton Kutcher was recruited to tackle regulation from a different front, decrying the city’s bizarre, old, antiquated legislation” on Jimmy Kimmel Live. On May 22 rival company Lyft – “your friend with a car”, which adopts a decentralised ride sharing model – launched in Miami on a donation-based payment scheme. This forced a response by Uber, which launched its comparably modelled UberX service in the city on June 4. These are not isolated events. Similar changes are being forced on other regions of the US such as: Arlington, Virginia; San Antonio, California; and Austin, Texas.

London Cabs by rosipaw

Uber arrived in London, it’s first European city, in mid-2012. London’s taxi industry consists of over 25,000 hackney carriage taxis serving a daytime population of around 10,000,000. In order to obtain a taxi licence, or Green Badge, drivers must pass to a knowledge test covering a 113 square mile area of the city which is purported to require up to five years of study. Uber, in accepting any driver with a private hire vehicle licence, poses a clear threat to the time and money that London’s taxi drivers have invested in their profession. In recent weeks, The Licensed Taxi Drivers Association has summoned six Uber drivers to court, alleging that the Uber smartphone app is equivalent to a taximeter and therefore illegal under the 1998 Private Hire Act which reserves that right for licensed taxi drivers. In addition, the London taxi-driver’s union lambast Transport for London for failing to pursue the illegal activities which Uber facilitate, suggesting that the state body is afraid of the money backing Uber. In response, Transport for London has sought a binding decision from the high court regarding the legality of the smart phone taximeter.

The way in which other transportation network companies have responded to Uber’s entrance into the London market is important in the case of Ireland. Hailo have announced that they will extend their services to private hire vehicles in addition to taxis. This was news was not well accepted by the industry, with the word ‘scabs’ being gratified on the wall of Hailo’s London office. The company responded on their website, insisting that they are simply following consumer demand. Assuming the move doesn’t too badly damage its position among existing service users, we can expect to see something similar in Ireland, either to pre-empt or combat Uber’s growing market share. Not all apps are going the way of private vehicle hire however. Competitor Cab:app has pushed back against the trend set by Uber and Hailo, asserting publicly its commitment to the taxi industry.

Protests in London and throughout Europe today (June 11, 2014) are in direct opposition to Uber’s perceived infringement upon the taxi industry. In the past, strike action has escalated to involve the destruction of property. In January 2014, Parisian taxi drivers struck in opposition to Uber’s unregulated market competition. Confrontations between unionised taxi drivers and Uber drivers resulted in “Smashed windows, tires, vandalized vehicle[s], and bleeding hands”.

The Irish SPSV sector is admittedly quite different from comparable industries in America, the UK and France. Hailo does not face the same kind of regulatory barriers in Ireland as it would in parts of the US. The National Taxi Drivers’ Union is less powerful than taxi unions in London, and certainly less militant than those in Paris. Hailo is a relatively well behaved company in this sector however. As competitors such as Uber and Lyft seek to expand their more aggressive strategies throughout Europe, it is highly likely, given the success of Hailo and Dublin’s reputation as a high-tech-friendly city, that a real push will be made to establish a foothold in Ireland. Spokesperson for Uber’s international operations Anthony El-Khoury has told the Irish Times: “We see a lot of potential in the Irish market and a lot of demand”. As this market heats up, pressure to further deregulate the SPSV industry will be put on Dublin City Council and the Irish government.

The future of the SPSV sector in Ireland

These two preliminary observations on the role of Hailo in Dublin are commensurate with larger tendencies of state deregulation and market-oriented competition. While the emergence of car ride apps may be positioned as a form of Schumpeterian creative-destruction, there are larger political and economic forces within which these applications should be contextualised. I have attempted to sketch some of these forces in this blog post.

The taxi industry is regulated for a reason. The screening and approval of drivers is important in ensuring accountability and the safety of passengers. Regular metering and Ireland’s nationwide fare system (which was instituted in September 2006) make certain that taxis provide an honest and consistent service that does not gouge rural communities or those in need. While Hailo operates under a minimally challenging model to these standards, it does not exist in a vacuum. By exploiting the freer regulation of limousines, Uber is effectively side-stepping many but not all of them. By doing away with accreditation altogether, Lyft would throw these standards onto the wills of the market. Car ride apps have the potential to put huge pressure on the taxi and limousine business. If other European cities are anything to go by Ireland’s SPSV sector is likely to be forced to deregulate further in coming years. This impacts the price, availability and safety of taxi services, and undercuts the ability of workers in the industry to bargain for fair pay and work conditions. It is important that any changes to the sector be submitted to proper public scrutiny and debate.

Jim Merricks White


June 12 – An article on RTE alerted me to the recent launch of Wundercar in Dublin. The app seems to follow the Lyft or UberX business model, whereby unlicensed drivers give passengers a lift somewhere in the city for “tips”. Drivers are screened by Wundercar rather than An Garda Síochána.

June 22 – The Independent reported on June 20 that Hailo is offering a suite of new services targeting the business sector. Most significant to my discussion here is the introduction of the company’s limousine option to Ireland. Limousine licences are considerably cheaper than taxi licences and there are fewer regulations on fare pricing.

  1. Aswath Damodaran of New York University claims that a more accurate valuation would be around $6bn. By way of comparison Hailo was valued, 18 months ago, at a far more modest $140m.

  2. Also called Road Traffic (Public Service Vehicles) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2000.