Friday, November 04, 2005

What if you couldn't ever logoff AIM?

What if you could not ever turn off your instant messaging client -- if there was no way to prevent people from knowing that you were on-line.

The technology is available to make that happen to some degree.

MIT maps wireless users across campus
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (AP) -- In another time and place, college students wondering whether the campus cafe has any free seats, or their favorite corner of the library is occupied, would have to risk hoofing it over there.

But for today's student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that kind of information is all just a click away.

MIT researchers did this by developing electronic maps that track across campus, day and night, the devices people use to connect to the network, whether they're laptops, wireless PDAs or even Wi-Fi equipped cell phones.

The maps were unveiled this week at the MIT Museum, where they are projected onto large Plexiglas rectangles that hang from the ceiling. They are also available online to network users, the data time-stamped and saved for up to 12 hours.

"With these maps, you can see down to the room on campus how many people are logged on," said Carlo Ratti, director of the school's SENSEable City Laboratory, which created the maps. "You can even watch someone go from room to room if they have a handheld device that's connected."

Researchers use log files from the university's Internet service provider to construct the maps. The files indicate the number of users connected to each of MIT's more than 2,800 access points. The map that can pinpoint locations in rooms is 3-D, so researchers can even distinguish connectivity in multistoried buildings.

While every device connected to the campus network via Wi-Fi is visible on the constantly refreshed electronic maps, the identity of the users is confidential unless they volunteer to make it public.

Those students, faculty and staff who opt in are essentially agreeing to let others track them.

Rich Pell, a 21-year-old electrical engineering senior from Spartanburg, South Carolina, was less than enthusiastic about the new system's potential for people monitoring. He predicted not many fellow students would opt into that.

"I wouldn't want all my friends and professors tracking me all the time. I like my privacy," he said.

"I can't think of anyone who would think that's a good idea. Everyone wants to be out of contact now and then."

They raise the point that this data viewed in this way can be very useful to city planners who know that a large part of the population is going to do its work in previously unconventional places when WiFi is more readily available. However, if you make this data available to the public (I also think that in MIT's case they log when you login to wired university terminals as well) things get a lot messier.

For example, what if there are services that make use of this information in some way that most people think is beneficial; however, they cannot opt-in to releasing their identity only to these services? In that case, people can basically be forced into releasing their identity to the public at large. Then, like I said, it's like not ever being able to logoff AIM.

On top of all of this, only SLIGHTLY smarter devices installed at each hotspot can use Bayesian analysis to determine the exact physical coordinates of each individual down to 1 foot resolution if not smaller. A little more intelligence will allow them to connect physical coordinates to actual logins. Thus you'll know that your boyfriend is not only in the same coffee shop as your best friend, but they're sitting at the same table together... and that's funny, because usually when you're with them they never talk.

And you know once Wi-Fi becomes more available, other devices will start picking it up. The entire cellular network may oneday be replaced with Wi-Fi phones that use Internet telephony. I know people starting companies to build such phones. (such services will be cheaper to offer to people because there will be no costly cell tower licensing fees to deal with) It was impossible to locate people's cell phones without the cell phones actively transmitting their GPS coordinates. Now, due to the small size of WiFi hot spots, it's much easier to do. Wide area wireless networks will possibly only link hot spots, so the resolution will still be there.

Fascinating times ahead!

[ Note: Take a look at it. See iSpots. I've only gotten it to work in MSIE though. ]

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