Skip to Content

When online services are accessed via a Web browser, geolocation technology can pinpoint the user’s position to within a few meters, employing a combination of the user’s IP address, the route taken by packets over the Internet, and any Wi-Fi networks that might be in range of the user’s computer. It’s even easier if a cell-phone app is used; the app can read the phone’s GPS and know, for example, every time the user walks in front of a Starbucks.

So why aren’t we already in an age of geospatial advertising, where companies like Facebook and Google send coupons to users’ phones as they pass by advertisers’ stores? One big problem is the difficulty of serving up such ads without compromising users’ privacy.

One possible solution is anonymization, scrubbing identifiers from personal data records so that advertisers get the absolute minimum of information they need—a trendy clothes retailer might care that a user is a woman aged 18 to 34, but it doesn’t need to know which 18-to-34-year-old woman she is. Or it might care that a user is near one of its stores without caring which store. Anonymization would let phones communicate with advertisers, providing location and general demographic information without revealing the user’s identity. However, it’s proved surprisingly easy to reassociate scrubbed records with specific individuals.

In response, researchers are developing new mathematical approaches to protecting identity. Efforts are under way at Microsoft to ensure that an individual’s contribution to, say, a demographic database cannot be isolated. Researchers at IBM are working on an encryption method that, in five to 10 years, could allow information to be analyzed without ever being decrypted (see “TR10: Homomorphic Encryption,” May/June 2011). That means companies could search for users whose location matches that of a store without ever getting access to personal details.

Deep Dive

Uncategorized

Five poems about the mind

DREAM VENDING MACHINE I feed it coins and watch the spring coil back,the clunk of a vacuum-packed, foil-wrappeddream dropping into the tray. It dispenses all kinds of dreams—bad dreams, good dreams,short nightmares to stave off worse ones, recurring dreams with a teacake marshmallow center.Hardboiled caramel dreams to tuck in your cheek,a bag of orange dreams…

Work reinvented: Tech will drive the office evolution

As organizations navigate a new world of hybrid work, tech innovation will be crucial for employee connection and collaboration.

Investing in people is key to successful transformation

People-related factors like talent attraction and retention and clear top-down communication will determine whether your transformation progresses or stalls.

The way forward: Merging IT and operations

Digital transformation in any industry begins with bridging the gap between two traditionally separate teams.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.