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Social Graphing for fun and profit

April 23rd, 2011

The whole ‘iSpy’ issue (iPhone’s logging your location — see here []) reminded me about the data. What good is the data?

According to Gizmodo;

Security expert, Kevin Mitnick says he’s “Quite shocked and disturbed” by the revelation, noting that the logged data could be of great interest to a variety of entities—prying spouses, private investigators, and, he reckons, the government. He speculates that the existence of the log itself “could have been at the request of the government,” as such data “can’t be used for advertisements. It seems to me more to be a governmental request.”

Gizmodo []

The story has defused somewhat since a few people have suggested that the logging of location data is a bug [].

But… let’s say it’s not a bug. Lets say it’s invitational. Let’s go further and say that there are similar files showing who you called and who you messaged. All of this can be correlated with the timestamps so we can see who you called, when you called them and where you were. Now Apple has the same data that your phone service provider has about you (well, they have billing address too if you’re not pre-paid. The again Apple most likely has a credit card on file for iTunes or the App Store so they know where you live too…)

Why would someone want all this data? I said it was most likely for advertising before. But Mitnick says that can’t be what it’s for. I disagree. First of all because location is one of the basic data points for traditional ad selling; Age, Sex and Location or ASL is the triumvirate of advertising. It’s the minimum info you need to attract advertisers. So if Apple could get your Age and Sex — maybe from your credit card data — and combine that with your location (I know that your credit card gives them an address but they can make a more detailed determination of where you actually frequent from the log data than just your home address. For example; if you live in Brooklyn but are actually in Manhattan from 8AM to 8PM every day then maybe your a better target for Starbucks in Manhattan than Einstein Brothers Bagels in Brighten Beach.)

The second and more compelling reason I think the data could be good for advertising is related to Social Graphs. A Social Graph is basically a digital representation of you, the people you know, the people they know and so on. Facebook, and all social networks are Social Graphs. And the reason Facebook launched Places is because it can add location to the graph. And every additional data point added to the graph allows it to profile users better and sell more targeted advertisements. The better the targeting the more it can charge for ads.

Facebook’s Social Graph is founded on the friends that each user has. Then Facebook adds additional layers of data on top of this; everything your ‘Like’, every place you check in to, etc. etc. All of this is used to provide a richer set of profiling data to improve the targeting of ads. But all of it is based on who you say your ‘friends’ are. This is the Explicit Social Graph.

There is another type of Social Graph however, the Implicit Social Graph. This would be a Graph built up not by who you say your ‘friends’ are but by who you actually interact with. This Graph would be developed not by asking you but by observing you, and while hiring a PI to follow everyone around would be expensive there are more passive ways of getting this data. Your phone service provider knows who you call and message and who calls and messages you, as well as were you where any time your phone is turned on. This data could be used to create an Implicit Social Graph showing who you actually interact with in the real work better than who you ‘friend’ online. This Implicit Social Graph could be augmented by other data in the same way that Facebook augments their Social Graph and for the same purpose, better profiling; better advertising.

So maybe Apple is not using the location data and it’s all just a bug. But I think they will want it if they can get it, and they want those call logs and messaging logs. Once they build their Implicit Social Graph for you they will augment it with purchase data from iTunes and maybe Safari Browser history and any other data point they can get no matter who trivial it seems. All to sell more ads.

One final note; To get this data Apple would have to jump through some hoops; collecting it on the handset and sending it back to them from time to time. And I don’t doubt that they or some one else will do it at some point. Your phone service provider has the data already, it’s a byproduct of providing your mobile phone service. They don’t seem to be doing anything with it. I’ve seen several project discussed over the past few years about how to use it, how to create these Explicit Social Graphs and sell advertising, but I am not aware of any that have come to fruition yet. I think it’s only a matter of time till someone like Apple beats the phone companies to the prize. As usual the culture of phone companies will get in the way and they will let another revenue stream slip past them because they just can’t do it. They’re too risk averse, to cheap and to old-fashion. Silicon Valley is going to have their lunch and the ISPization of the phone companies will be one step closer.

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