Data Privacy Lab  

Harvard University

The Politics of Personal Data

Gov 1430

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Lab 5. Tracking Your Mobile Phone


A goal of this lab is to help you learn how to assess technology-society clashes. In the future, you may be called upon to provide an opinion for your employer or client involving a new technology. If so, you will want to conduct a risk assessment or threat analysis based on issue spotting and then report your results in a briefing document.

Suggested Readings


Anyone can setup wireless sensors to record the appearance of your mobile phone’s Wi-Fi and Bluetooth probes to track where you are and where you have been –say, where you are when you're ambling through store or mall, or when you're walking or driving down a street. Some retail stores are experimenting with this technology to track your whereabouts. Wi-Fi tracking should be able to allow willing consumers and stores to enjoy many worthy benefits without adverse consequences.

Group Activity

Divide into 10 groups of up to 5 people. Become part of a group of people where most of the people in the group are people with whom you have not yet worked. Choose a group leader who will be responsible for writing your briefing document and leading the presentation next week. The group leader must be a person that has not yet been a group leader.

Below are 5 competing approaches to the problem stated above.

Approach #1: Loyalty Apps

This approach encourages loyalty programs to replace the array of tokens, cards, and phone numbers we now use to participate in loyalty programs with store-specific apps or even shopping apps that work across multiple stores, providing a quid pro quo between consumers and stores. By running a “loyalty app”, you give permission to participate in the program. Store-specific apps with GPS location enabled can identify the store’s location and in large stores, roughly where in the store you may roam. Location tracking in small spaces using GPS is not as precise as using MAC address tracking. This approach allows the store to not only learn about your purchases, but also something about your shopping patterns. An advantage of using apps and GPS is that you can enable or disable them without reducing the utility of your phone.

Approach #2: Store Wi-Fi

In this approach, a store hosts its own open Wi-Fi network in the store. Promiscuous phones would automatically connect and phones set to ask you before joining Wi-Fi networks would need your permission. The store's Wi-Fi is not a pathway to the Internet; instead, it provides one-on-one communication between you and the store through your phone's web browser (or loyalty app). The store would display its policy about tracking, and if you proceed, the store will track your physical location and unique MAC address and provide perks and discounts to your phone directly. Because the tracking can be specific to items geographically near you in the store, the Wi-Fi can send targeted just-in-time specials. When used with a loyalty app, the store can learn about both your purchases and your detailed shopping patterns. This approach also features a quid pro quo advantage between consumers and stores, but unlike the prior approach that only works with smartphones, this approach would work with virtually all phones because it uses web browsers.

Approach #3: Passive Search for Wi-Fi Networks

Manufacturers of mobile phones, or possibly app developers, could provide an option to make mobile Wi-Fi “passive” in locating nearby Wi-Fi networks. Mobile phones actively emit probe requests to learn about nearby Wi-Fi networks so that you do not have to wait to discover available networks when you want to connect. However, the technical specification [10] also provides a passive option. Instead of actively sending probe requests, the mobile phone could wait to receive beacons from nearby networks. At timed intervals, Wi-Fi networks broadcast their presence by emitting beacons. A mobile phone that is passively accumulating a list of nearby networks does so by listening for beacons. Of course, not all Wi-Fi scanning should be passive, so a configuration setting could exist to allow consumers to select active or passive scanning. This approach requires your permission to participate, and therefore, can technically support the previous two approaches. An advantage of this approach is that it maintains the utility of phones of consumers who do not want to participate without inconveniencing those who do want to participate.

Approach #4: Do Not Track

The Future of Privacy Forum has created a voluntary Code of Conduct for companies that wish to track consumers' location in stores. Participating stores post signs in stores to alert they are using mobile tracking technology and to offer instructions for how to opt-out using a website where you enter the MAC addresses of any phone you do not want tracked. The Future of Privacy Forum worked with companies that offer mobile location tracking technologies to develop an industry best practice. A commentary noted that privacy-concerned consumers must locate and then enter their MAC addresses into a database in order for retailers to ignore their captured information (being listed in the database does not stop the information from being captured). An advantage of this approach is that it does not require any new technology or technical changes to implement.

Approach #5: iOS 8 Temporary MAC Addresses

Apple announced that the MAC addresses sent by phones will change over time.

Important. By the end of the session today, login to the Course Wiki and identify your group as being one of the groups listed above for Lab 5. There should be a "pro" and "con" group for each approach. The "pro" group is in favor of the approach and takes the position that the approach is the best possible solution. Conversely, the "con" group is against the approach, taking the position that of all possible approaches, the proposed approach is the worst one possible. Select one of these for your group and place your group information there. Identify your group members and the group leader.

Assume you have a job advising the top person in the organization for or against the approach. They hired you, in part,because you took this course. Your boss is being summoned to debate the opposing group for the approach. Your boss turns to you and asks, "what are our best strengths and weaknesses?" Your job is to determine the best strengths and weaknesses and use those to make arguments to win the debate.

You should start by doing issue spotting. What are the most likely issue to occur that would have the most dramatic impact? Then, organize the issues into a risk assessment or threat analysis. The primary outcome is to identify the top one to three issues that form your position. Think about an experiment or analysis that would further support your position. And then think about counter-arguments to those points opposing you.

Paper and Debate (Due Tuesday)

Submit a short paper (3-5 pages) from your group that is your briefing document for the debate. Be sure to include the names of all group members on the paper. Submit your paper to the Wiki by Wednesday.

Debate. On Tuesday, your group will debate the opposing group. Each group will have 1 minute to make an opening statement. Then, the groups will have a back-and-forth question and answering period in which each person in the group that does not give the opening or closing statement will have to field a question. The debate ends with a 30 second closing statement by each group.

The back-and-forth question and answering period works as follows. Each side will have a chance to ask the other side specific questions. Each person in the group, who does not give the opening or closing statement, must field a question posed by the opposing side. When the debate ends, each person on each group will have participated verbally in the debate. The number of questions fielded by a group is the number of people in the group less 2 (the people making the opening and closing statements). Each question cannot be longer than 15 seconds to ask. Each answer cannot be longer than 30 seconds in response.

Debate Scoring. Points are earned in a pro vs. con matchup. One team earns 1 point for the opening statement receiving the most votes. On each question-answer matchup, either the team asking the question or the team answering the question receives one vote. Finally, one team earns 1 point for the closing statement receiving the most votes. Class members not actively engaged in the debate vote. A vote reflects which side was more convincing or insightful. The team having the most votes wins a class trophy. The number of points won by your team is not your grade for the assignment!

Briefing document. Earlier in this course, you wrote scientific papers. This time, like last last time, you will write a briefing document. In the first paragraph, state your position and describe the issue in terms of your position. Start the document with a clear statement in the first paragraph. Assume the person has little time to read and may just take the first paragraph as your position. This paragraph would likely be your opening statement.

The next section provides details to support your position in order of importance. Assume the reader is just looking for the answer to a question or talking points. The audience is not reading to learn about a topic, just what to say. Write all your paragraphs to instruct the person being briefed on what to do, to say, and to support. This is not an essay, so do not express pros and cons. Instead, assert all the reasons why your position is the correct one and the most important. This section could be used to make sure all team members share the same talking points for the position.

The next section has specific details that form the basis of the position, which will include an experiment that could be conducted to further substantiate the position. The “experiment” is like the abstract and methods you have done in the earlier assignments. This section could be used to make sure all team members share the same rationale for the position.

Your paper ends with a list of debate questions-and-answers prepared by your team in support of your position and in response to actual and anticipated statements opposing your position.

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