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    Google's New Room-Mapping Phone Raises Some Privacy Questions

    Written by

    Joseph Cox

    Image: Google ATAP/Youtube

    You can't deny that Google are at the forefront of bringing amazing technology to ordinary consumers. With Street View bringing (nearly) the whole world into your laptop, and the open release of Glass coming clearer into focus, Google are the one company that is constantly testing the boundaries of what technology can do for the public.  

    Yesterday they announced their latest bit of kit. Project Tango is an Android-based phone that boasts super-advanced 3D sensors. The point of these? They allow the mapping of the area around the phone, including the interiors of buildings.

    “What if you could capture the dimensions of your home simply by walking around with your phone before you went furniture shopping? What if directions to a new location didn’t stop at the street address? What if you never again found yourself lost in a new building?” Google questioned in their announcement. 

    An introduction to Project Tango. Video: Google ATAP/Youtube

    Apart from obviously creating a new dimension for recording and exploring the environment you live in, the implications are more wide-ranging than you might immediately think. You can render objects in 3D that would otherwise take hours of work and an expensive array of cameras in a matter of minutes. New, playful augmented reality games could work with it to bridge the gap between your imagination and the outer world.

    The devices are currently available to only 200 developers, who will have the chance to get to grips with Tango and discover other ways of using the technology. Google is especially looking for devs who will use it for “indoor navigation/mapping, single/multiplayer games that use physical space, and new algorithms for processing sensor data.” The ultimate aim is to give technology an understanding of space closer to that of a human.

    It'll be a while before we see anything like Tango in the hands of the general public; Google called it "a focused exploration of what might be possible in a mobile platform" and explained, "We are still in the early days as this technology begins the transition out of research labs into the hands of millions of people." But if 3D room-mapping phones are the future, there are a plethora of questions that would need to be answered before we can get too excited.

    Firstly, where would all of this data be kept? Would the maps of your living roomand anyone else's who fancies buying this phonebe uploaded to a massive Google server? Having all of that information aggregated by one company isn't particularly wise, especially when the NSA's PRISM program allows the government agency to peek at any information they want from the company and its services. 

    Image: Google ATAP/Youtube

    And with big data comes big bucks. Google primarily makes its income from selling your information on to third parties, who then target advertisements at you. So who would get to see the data created by the phone, and what protections would be in place to ensure that it is safely handled?

    Bearing that in mind, how else could advertising factor into Project Tango? Are we going to see tailored adverts for certain furniture, because the device knows that your 12ft x 12ft bedroom is perfect for that new futon from your local retailer?

    Or will the maps be stored on the device, and in which case what would happen if you were hacked? A blueprint of your home might be great fun for playing virtual hide-and-seek, but in the hands of someone with less benevolent intentions, it leaves you exposed to threats when at your most vulnerable. 

    How persistent will the mapping feature be? Location data leaks from smartphones all the time through first and third party applications. What is to say that this phone will be any different, and won't inadvertently expose the innards of any building we happen to walk in to?

    In a similar vein to Google Glass, how would the privacy of those not using the product be protected? Say I walk into a friend's place and map his entire apartment. What is to stop me sending these data on, or using it myself for nefarious means?

    Perhaps Google, like they have with Glass, will just have to remind its customers not to be total assholes.