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Before I agree to let your app track me everywhere, I want something ‘special’ in return (winks)…

Something for the Weekend, Sir? “This website is requesting permission to access your location. Yes/No?” Absolutely not. My personal details are sacred!

I learnt this the hard way. An unfortunate experience with what seemed like a harmless little app – RshnMobstr, I think it was called – taught me not to give away too much.

The app asked perfectly innocent questions about my current address, age, occupation… that sort of thing. Oh and my IBAN, mother’s maiden name, the name of my first pet, the brand of my first car, my favourite movie, the last time I cried, my height, weight, length, girth… well, you get the idea. And the next thing I know, a bunch of nosey-parker call-centre staff started ringing me day and night to ask whether I had just used my credit card to purchase a light aeroplane in Murmansk.

I told them it was none of their business. My personal details are sacred, after all.

People complain about being prompted to accept or reject cookies by every website they visit. Well, being nagged to give away my location is worse. It’s just good technology applied badly – or should I say disingenuously.

Now, the cookie thing is annoying but I get it. There is a sort of naive honesty about a shady online outfit asking a site visitor if they’d mind having their computer carpet-bombed with unethical data-thieving spyware ad grenades. The visitor can then choose whether they will bother to visit that site ever again based on whether or not there is a Disallow All Cookies button.

If I might make one small request, though? In addition to Allow All Cookies and Disallow All Cookies buttons, I would like websites to include a third option: Install A Lifetime Cookie To Remember You Clicked Disallow All Cookies.

It seems a lifetime ago when I consciously made a pact with the Devil to allow Google Maps to follow me around the streets. If you want to go from A to B, route-mapping systems find it helpful if you agree to tell it where A is. Later in the day, of course, Google Maps nags me to submit “user-generated content” about all the shops and other places I went to, so I just repeatedly tap the option to say I hadn’t visited that place at all and Google Maps repeatedly apologises for its error. I’m not so bothered about privacy; I just get a kick out of the apologies.

Before the rise of the Pandemic That Shall Not Be Named, it was charming to have Google Maps surprise me with an unsolicited notification showing me a map of all the locations it thought I had been to over the previous month or two. London, Belgrade, Paris, Chicago, er… Herne Bay… I would feel a proper little International Man of Mystery. Yeah, baby.

Post-Voldemort-19, that map looks rather sad. Rather than spanning continents, it has zoomed in on my neighbourhood with a little star at my front door and another at the off-licence. Oh, and there’s one at La Quequetterie, a local cake shop I once visited that does a roaring trade in iced phalluses and vulva pancakes. [Warning: link NSFW if you scroll downwards]

Oh come on, how could I not check out this shop? It might seem a desperate marketing ploy at first but, again, I respect the naive honesty of selling a dick-on-a-stick without pretending it’s just a long donut. In a previous era, Cadbury’s ad agency was notorious for the latter type of crass subterfuge, boosting sales by popularising chocolate fellatio on pre-watershed television.

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Using Google Maps to find the shop had the additional benefit of sending the arse end of my personal profile stored in Google’s data dungeons into an uncontrolled twerk. It would certainly explain why I have started seeing fewer banner ads for electronic components and more three-second interstitials for pole-dancing YouTubers.

Undesirable, perhaps, but understandable. It’s a location-tracking trade-off I entered into deliberately – foolishly, perhaps, but knowingly.

So would I buy a personal tracking device? One of those little plastic tag gadgets that you hide in suitcases or sew into the lining of your kids’ raincoats? Now that’s another matter. When I share my data with Google Maps, I like to imagine my data is sloshing around in decent company alongside that of fellow route-hunting sat-navvers, world-travelling businesspeople, and sniggering middle-aged men buying a rolled pancake on a stick. That’s not the case with people-trackers.

The fastest growth areas in the market for personal tracking devices are not pets and grandads but employees and offenders. A report from ABI Research reckons this segment will reach an installed base of 10 million by 2026. This reveals a lot about how bosses regard their workers. And soon your little Timmy’s location will be rubbing shoulders with those of sex offenders on day release. I know it’s just ones and zeros but, you know, yuk. I wouldn’t poke that kind of metadata with a bargepole.

Perhaps I’m just prolonging the inevitable. A smart cities report from the EU earlier this year suggested using lampposts to spy on citizens… er, I mean of course “to tackle Covid response and recovery” (it says here).

“21st century lamp columns go beyond street lighting by incorporating sensors that can receive and transmit information about crowd density, and even the body temperature of individuals,” marvels the report. “They can also incorporate CCTV, air quality sensors, flooding monitors, digital signage, and 5G wifi hotspots.” Those testing such waters include London’s Westminster City Council, which wants to manipulate street lighting in real time to herd, sorry, guide people away from crowded areas. You know, to stop Covid.

Well, it’s one thing to hand my location to Google Maps while I wind my way down the streets. If the street furniture I walk past is also tracking me – and my body temperature – without asking, I may as well throw caution to the wind. Maybe there will be a benefit. Let’s give it a go!

Hmm, I think need new shreds. I have a quick look online to see what the current fashion is for gentlemen’s undergarments. The website is asking if it’s OK to detect my location. That strikes me as odd but then it could be that the style for cutties is different on my side of town. I click Yes.

I want to read the news about a very specific item of local current affairs. I look it up and click on a link… and the website wants to know my location. Will the story on that website be written differently if I happen to be reading it in Barnsley? We’ll soon find out: I click Yes.

I’d like to read some advice on how to stop a bicycle chain from slipping off when changing gear. Oh, but first the site is requesting permission to find my location. Maybe there’s an atmospheric influence on chain slippage in different parts of the world, who knows? I click Yes.

And what do I get in return for my personal data largesse?

The checkout page on the online clothing store still hasn’t the faintest fucking idea where I am in the world and it’s only after I type in my full postal address AND select my nearest branch from a list that it tells me it’s out of stock.

The news site finds my location, squirrels the data away for selling to phishing gangsters and says no more about it. The story I wanted to read is lost as the page duly refreshes to show irrelevant shit about stuff happening 9,000 miles away.

The cycling maintenance manuals, which were in English when I first landed on the site, have now switched to German. I guess the bike manufacturer wasn’t made aware that my current location was liberated 77 years ago.

Good technology applied badly, eh? ®

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. Talking of that 1980s TV ad for Cadbury’s Flake, he always wondered what barrels of depravity in the dank cellars of the human id are supposed to be tapped by the symbolism of a lizard running across the dial of an unanswered, ringing telephone with a flashing red light. Enlightenment from readers with a psychological bent is welcome. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.