The mobile data revolution

To wrap up my three-column series on big, new technology trends and their economic impact in the North and more broadly, let's have a look at mobile.

To wrap up my three-column series on big, new technology trends and their economic impact in the North and more broadly, let’s have a look at mobile.

Living in the Yukon, where mobile phones are less common than many parts of the world, it is easy to forget how rapidly mobile phones have become nearly ubiquitous. According to the ITU, the United Nations telecom agency, there are 7.1 billion people on the planet with 6.8 billion mobile phone subscriptions. The average for developed countries is 128 phones per 100 people, while the average for developing countries is a lower but still amazing 89.

A British friend on a round-the-world tour visited a while ago and I took him to Carcross for the day. He remarked that his phone worked all through rural Africa and that the Yukon was the first place he didn’t have coverage.

Recent trips to San Francisco and London showed me how mobile gadgets have insinuated themselves into modern life. At the hotel, the clerk may ask how many devices you want to connect to the hotel Wi-Fi. A single guest might have a smartphone, laptop, iPad or an e-book reader. People in office towers order their lunch from their phone and pick it up in the food court. They check where the bus is, or call up a map showing the location of all the nearby taxis available. Everyone seems to be texting, calling, snapchatting and updating their Facebook status every five seconds.

The next wave is already coming. People are tracking their pets, and probably their children. You can find a lost iPhone. A school in Texas put radio-frequency tags on its students so it could tell who was actually in class. Google just bought Nest, a maker of Internet-connected thermostats with ambitions to connect everything in your house. Soon you will be pouring a bath set to your favourite temperature on your way home or heating up the oven. Smartphone makers want to eliminate the key and the card, and have their phone be the only thing in your pocket (or built into your shirt or wristwatch or whatever comes next).

Of course, if your device is connected to the network, then the network knows where you are.

According to the Wall Street Journal, a company named Turnstyle in Toronto has placed smartphone sensors in 200 businesses downtown. It can track the habits of individual smartphones and their owners (or subjects, depending on your point of view). They can tell that you go to early morning yoga on Thursdays, then for coffee and like to shop for clothes during your lunch break.

Another Toronto company named Viasense apparently buys metadata from the cellphone companies and tracks the movements of several million Toronto cellphones on their daily routines in a 400-kilometre zone around Toronto. Apparently it is accurate to within a metre in some cases. If your phone moves through a park in the morning at a certain speed, it knows you’re a jogger. Presumably it can tell which smartphones you meet, where and for how long.

There is also talk of using mobile location technology to improve traffic flows in cities and even to catch highway speeders.

All of this may explain why the ITU claims Russians have 1.7 cellphones each. You would need several to make it harder for the security agencies to track you: one for routine use, and a burner phone kept turned off until you take the battery out of your first phone and sneak away from your usual hangouts to phone your favourite drug dealer, romantic fling or investigative journalist.

Some refuse to get a mobile data device to stop government agencies or corporations from tracking them. Others take elaborate precautions involving multiple phones, keeping their devices turned off or in radio-cloaking sleeves. But 99 per cent of us seem happy to keep our personal tracking devices in our pockets.

Economically, mobile data promises huge productivity benefits. We used to waste truly vast amounts of time and money trying to find places, things and people that were moving around. Putting the latest information in the hands of people in the field can dramatically boost productivity. A study by Deloitte, a consultancy, using data from Cisco suggested that a “doubling of mobile data use leads to an increase of 0.5 percentage points in GDP per capita growth rates.” That number may sound small, but multiplied by billions of people it is dramatic.

Of course, mobile data also raises huge privacy, ethics and security concerns. The technological wave seems to be years ahead of legislators and regulators. By the time they catch up, it might be a case of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Or, using a more appropriate metaphor, of changing the password from “password” after the server has already been hacked.

In the meantime, if you want a respite from global mobile data the Yukon is a good place to hide. Christmas at our cabin at Tagish was delightful, as both parents and children found their smartphones useless. Only my daughter, who lost her phone and has been forced to settle for a six-year-old Nokia we found in a drawer, was able to text anyone. There won’t be many more Christmases like that.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter