Broadcom has rolled out a new microchip for smart phones that may make some people a little uncomfortable. It can determine your location within centimeters, both vertically and horizontally, so it can know which chair in which room on which floor of which building you're sitting in right now. As long as you have your cell phone on you, of course.
Okay, that's creepy. But it doesn't have to be. While it can track cell phone users since we have our phones in our pockets, the fact is it is tracking the location of whatever device in which it is installed, and this technological improvement could be a good thing for environmental science.
MIT reports, "The unprecedented accuracy of the Broadcom 4752 chip results from the sheer breadth of sensors from which it can process information. It can receive signals from global navigation satellites, cell-phone towers, and Wi-Fi hot spots, and also input from gyroscopes, accelerometers, step counters, and altimeters. The variety of location data available to mobile-device makers means that in our increasingly radio-frequency-dense world, location services will continue to become more refined."
The microchip can even figure out how high up it is thanks to atmospheric pressure sensors on the device. While MIT notes that this could mean a new era of e-commerce based on retailers knowing exactly where you are in a store and what products you're looking at (triple creepy!!), there are other uses for such sensitive information gathering.
Cell phones are ubiquitous devices and are increasingly used in science and data gathering, especially in remote and rural areas where the cheap technology can be used in place of more expensive equipment. Cell phones are already being used for everything from medical assistance to tracking animals to acting as microscopes to measuring pollution. This microchip with its unprecedented ability to determine location can aid in many of these scientific uses.
Cell phones could become even better tools for mapping locations of pollution, tracking the path and activities of an animal, noting locations of particular plants or habitat under study, or even used in flying drones mapping things like deforestation.
This isn't to say that all uses of the chip will be positive. It seems that more people have their head in the shopping game than the science game. MIT states, "Scott Pomerantz, vice president of the GPS division at Broadcom, counters that "the big [mobile] operating systems all have a strategy in place" to create their own Wi-Fi databases. Pomerantz isn't allowed to name names, but one of Broadcom's biggest customers is Apple, which previously used Skyhook for location services in its iPhone but now employs its own, Apple-built location system."
Indeed, Apple, Google and Microsoft have all been caught secretly tracking the physical locations of their users and saving that information to a file. How long is it before such data is instantly available to law enforcement bodies on demand, just as governments are legislating that ISPs and cell phone companies divulge our web browsing histories, email, texts and call information?
Biblical fears about the ‘mark of the beast’ being an implantable microchip forcibly injected into our foreheads have proven to be off base. Coercion was not necessary because people have been enticed into willingly giving up their privacy for convenience.
While I do definitely agree that privacy is flying out the window thanks to our cell phones and that this is a serious issue, I have to say I love the idea of a technology that can make environmental science easier. The benefits of a new technology is all in how we utilize it. Will it be used for creepy purposes? Probably. But hopefully it will also be used for less nefarious tasks and help science out.