Geolocation changes the social contract

Techcrunch has a good post up today pointing out that geolocation makes it much harder for people to lie about where they are, which in turn changes our social contract a little. This is the key passage:

Lying’s a lot harder than it used to be. Examples — Boss: “Where are you?” Employee: “On my way to the office.” Boss: “Show me.” ||| Mom: “Where are you?” Son: “At Jimmy’s house” Mom: “Show me.”

With geo-coded messages, you have to be where you say you are. Whether it’s a parent, employer, or spouse, anyone with a little power over you can demand you verify your location.

Sometimes you’re running late. Sometimes you aren’t where you’re supposed to be. You might be still in bed when your boss calls, or a kid could be biking through the night with their little hooligan buddies when they were supposed to be safe asleep at a friend’s house.

But until recently, the only thing someone had to go on was your word. They asked you over a voice call where you were, you told a little white lie, and then rushed to be where you said you were before they found out.

Now, someone could request a screenshot of your blue dot on your mobile map. Or that you send a geo-coded Facebook message that shows your current location. Hell, they could force you into a video call and request you to show the traffic you’re supposedly stuck in, or the house you’re supposed to be at.

Whilst in theory people could simply say ‘no’ and regulators might make it illegal for bosses to force employees to reveal their location in practice many people in trusting relationships will choose to share, often by default, makng it difficult for others to say no. Refusing to share will be grounds for suspicion. 

As Techcrunch says, “like it or loathe it, this is a new social contract we will have to get used to”. What they don’t say is that we have had one iteration of this change already. Mobile phones have only been around for 20-30 years, and before that it was even easier to mislead people about your location. Nowadays background sound is a big clue.

Last week I wrote about how social media is demanding a change in the way we judge people, which is really another example of technology changing our social contract. I chose to make a similar point again today because many people resist the idea that developments in technology should force them to abandon elements of their social contract that they are happy with and have served them well for years. There is a sense that social contracts shouldn’t change, whereas in practice they have been evolving in response to changes in technology for at least the 300 or so years since the industrial revolution. As examples, the newspaper, the radio, the cinema, the television, the PC, computer games, and most recently social media have all had profound effects on how family life is organised. Most often those changes were frightening to large elements of the population at the time, just as many are worried about geolocation and social media now. I think that people will eventually get used to the change in social contract around geolocation just as they did when mobile phones first became popular and all the new media formats listed above were introduced.

  • Gary Mulder

    While online reputations and locations may become a basis for judging character, it is not quite as simple as that. Digital identities constructed from whole eCloth are now routine, e.g:

    and inevitably in the future so will GPS locations be able to be faked at will:


  • Surely it can’t be beyond the wit of the average teenager to create a geolocation hacking app.

  • Maybe not beyond the *average* teenager. I don’t know what percentage used to make fake IDs when we were kids, but maybe it was 10-15%. Hacking a geolocation app probably takes a similar amount of effort and dedication.

  • Thanks Gary. Spoofing the GPS looks pretty complicated at the moment and I’m sure if it comes to it people will find ways to spot the spoofers – maybe by the character of the movement of the dot or other aspects of the signal. My guess is that some people will spoof, maybe criminals, but I doubt it will become widespread. Most people don’t care enough for the hassle.
    GPS blockers are a bigger issue. I have a friend with a company dedicated to spotting them.