Just keep tracking, tracking, tracking

One of the things that technology has been enabling us to do lately is to track all sorts of things. The way technology has evolved and the emergence of smartphones has made us become impatient people who always want to be aware of what is happening around us.

We can now track packages, friends, news, prices, messages, the status of applications, transportation, physical activity and even the pizza we ordered from Domino’s. Since these things are available for us to know, we have grown increasingly impatient, always waiting for notifications and immediate feedback.

The first part of this blog post will explore current methods for tracking things. The second part will focus on the ultimate form of tracking: Face ++, a face recognition software used to track humans.

Part One

What we track now

In the past, people did not have the means to know the whereabouts of their friends at all times or whether someone received and read their letter or whether their application was being processed by the university they applied to. Thanks to technology, we are able to track all those things and more. Here are some examples:

1. Tracking Packages

This is probably the form of tracking that has been around the longest. When we order something online, we tend to want to know when our package is going to arrive. Thanks to scanning technology, we can track all the towns and cities it passes through before it gets to its final destination.

2. Tracking Friends

There are multiple apps on our smartphones that allow us to track the location and activities of our friends and acquaintances:

  • The ‘Find my Friends’ app for iPhones is specifically designed to track friends and family so you can know their whereabouts in case there is an emergency or you need to find them urgently.
  • Snapchat and Instagram stories allow you to know what your friends are doing if they decide to post on their stories and use geotags to show their location.
  • The Snap Map shows where your contacts’ Bitmojis are since the last time they opened the app (if they are not on ‘ghost’ mode).

friend apps meme

3. Tracking News

There are many news apps that allow us to track stories. I like how the News app for iPhones sends me notifications now and then of important things that are happening around me.

4. Tracking Prices

Now there are apps and websites that enable us to track the price of something and get notifications when the price drops or gets higher. I like to use ‘Hopper’ or Google Flights to track the price of flights over time because I get notifications every time it fluctuates in any direction.

5. Tracking Messages and Online Activity

When we used text messages (I mean SMS texts) many years ago, we never knew whether the message was received or read. Now, Facebook and WhatsApp allow us to see who receives and reads our messages and how long ago they were online in the app

delivered text meme

Texting is very different now than a few years ago because texts go unanswered for hours, days and even weeks if they are not super urgent.

6. Tracking the Status of Applications

When we send in an application for a school, a job or for immigration forms, we can usually check the status of such application online. In the past, you would usually get a letter or a phone call notifying you of the result, without knowing the different stages of your application (e.g. received, processing, processed, accepted, denied etc.).

7. Tracking Transportation

Many cities offer real-time tracking for their trains and buses. A good example is the Rider app that we use for the BC Comm Ave and Newton Buses. This is very useful because it tells us when our bus or train will be arriving and we can plan accordingly (although there are always glitches in these systems).

8. Tracking Physical Activity and Food Intake

Thanks to all the apps available out there, we can track steps, sleep, running distance, calories eaten, calories burned etc. on a daily basis. I personally don’t own a Fitbit but I do like to use the Health app of my iPhone to track my steps and sleep. I do have a friend who has a Fitbit and when she doesn’t hit 12,000 steps, she’ll start walking around to achieve her goal.

fitbit meme

9. Tracking Food

Domino’s and other fast food chains enable users to see the progress of the food they’ve ordered. The Domino’s tracker even tells you the names of the people involved in the process!

dominos meme

Part Two

The future: tracking whoever, whenever, wherever?

Now that we have covered the main ways in which things can be tracked now, I want to bring your attention to a new software that has been developed by a startup in China called Face++.

Face++ ‘s face recognition software is the ultimate definition of tracking in China. For those of you who are familiar with the book ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers, it is very similar to the world Mae lives in.

This software is already being used in China to authorize payments, provide access to buildings and to track down criminals. Once your face is scanned by one of many surveillances cameras, it can be added to a database where it is stored until it is needed to make a transaction or to grant you access to a building.

It is basically impossible for someone to pretend to be someone else by using a picture or because there is a “liveliness” test that requires the person to move and speak while the app is scanning them.

Local Chinese governments are using this type of facial recognition technology to track down suspected criminals by using video surveillance cameras which are present in many areas of the country. Right now, China has 170 million surveillance cameras placed around the country but it aims to have 570 million by 2020.

face++ meme

This type of technology can be used in China because the country has a very specific view towards surveillance and privacy. Unlike other countries, China has a large and centralized database of people’s ID cards so it is easier for them to track people down.

Do you think this type of tracking is too much? Or will other countries follow China’s example to keep their citizens safer?








  1. profgarbusm · ·

    Ah yes, here we go again walking the ever-so-delicate creepy/cool line in technology.
    I loved how you discussed the benefits of tracking that we’ve already probably taken (such as for dominos pizza or a package) and compared it to more personal forms of tracking such as find my friends. While I think tracking packages like dominos is cool, personally having my location tracked at all times is a bit creepy – but also something I’ve seen the upside of. Over spring break me and my friends all enabled the app at all times as we were in Miami and it allowed us to keep tabs on one another in a city filled with strangers – very helpful and it gave us peace of mind. Now being back in Boston, and with almost all of forgetting to disable the app, I find it a bit creepy. I do think this kind of technology is here to stay however, as it just has too strong of an upside. I really do worry though. The government technology you mentioned in China is great – if in the right hands – but could be easily turned on its head to help someone literally destroy anyone with differing opinions to their own. For instance this technology in the US doesn’t scare me quite as much as it would if I were to hear that Putin were utilizing it.

  2. Lucy Wilson · ·

    Really interesting post, Nuria. It’s funny that you bring this up because my friend and I were just discussing the different apps and technologies that track your sleeping habits and efficiency. While these are certainly helpful in identifying underlying health issues (using these, her mom discovered that she had sleep apnea), as a healthy, active young adult, I’ve found them to be more of a stressor. In the past, I’ve used sleeping apps to track how long and deeply I slept. Because many of these are not totally accurate, I often found myself waking up after what I thought was a great sleep only to see that the app considered it bad, which made me worry why I wasn’t sleeping as well as I thought.

    In terms of the facial recognition tracking going on in China, I find this to be incredibly intrusive. For these to be installed more widely, I think governments needs to develop some kind of legislation that outlines if and when your face can be saved into the system. Clearly, it has benefits, particularly when tracking criminals or missing persons. However, I don’t think it should save every face it identifies as a default. Like anything, having all of that data could be particularly dangerous in the wrong hands.

  3. markdimeglio · ·

    Nice post! I think the whole tracking information thing is only useful insofar I don’t have to put a ton of effort into the process. I find it quite annoying if I have to spend my days entering in my consumption history into an app. I think apps that will have success in the future will be the ones that require minimal input from its users.

    I really hope the US does not implement this kind of facial-recognition tracking going forward. To me it would be a huge over-stepping of privacy boundaries. Like the lawyer who visited our class the other day said, people behave differently when they are being watched even if they aren’t doing anything wrong. With this technology, though it could result in less crime or violence, etc. it could cause people to lose a sense of freedom. That too me is too much.

  4. kseniapekhtere1 · ·

    Great post. I feel like so far tracking has provided more benefits than harm to us. I can hardly imagine not being able to track packages or transportation now. However, I believe most of us feel differently when it comes to ourselves and our actions being tracked. I know very few people who have their read receipts on in iMessage. And when I used WhatsApp where my read notifications are on I often on purpose don’t open the app so the person doesn’t see that I saw the message and has not been responding. So I think most people would be a little freaked out by the face surveillance tracking. It’s true that in China laws are different and there the government can do that. I actually just recently saw an article how cameras are being installed everywhere in China, even on trees. However, in the US privacy is taken more seriously. For example, even speeding radars are not allowed in most states because they take picture of you and that’s a privacy violation. So hopefully these face surveillance technology would not come to the US soon.

  5. roarkword · ·

    @profgarbusm is right, the creepy/cool line is really being toed here, but the creepy is beginning to outweigh the cool. I enjoyed the find my friends feature for those that I explicitly told could track me and vice versa, but when Snap introduced their mapping feature via update, it defaulted to showing your location and a manual transition to Ghost mode was required (I even know some people who had no idea about the feature and only turned it off after weeks of unknowing use. This silent kind of surreptitious implementation is the most scary and makes me worry that we might not be as far off from more wide reaching surveillance. State surveillance, however, is an issue that I feel confident the US population will not allow to the extent that China has.

  6. oliverhowe14 · ·

    I agree with @profgarbusm and @roarkword with tracking beginning to encroach on the creepy side of the cool/creepy line. I think tracking is a great, great feature when it comes to products and services (pizza, a package, and Uber, etc.) but it begins to invade privacy when it comes to tracking people. I would normally have no issue with the Snap Maps feature, but what I have an issue with is the fact that the default setting was to have the feature on. They definitely should have had the default setting as Ghost Mode, and then instructed people on how to change and activate the program. Additionally, I see the benefit of having Find My Friends on my phone, because it helps make sure people make it home after a night out or whatever. But when people use it for every day life it rubs me the wrong way. I don’t need people to know where I am at all times.

  7. mariaknoerr · ·

    I agree with most comments above that this topic definitely flirts with the creepy/cool line. I personally believe this line is crossed when you are tracked without your consent. As far as the capabilities outlined in part 1 – these are all features of apps that you would opt-in to by choice. I choose to turn off my location services on most apps on my smartphone, but appreciate the ability to track my packages and flight prices. Find my friends can be helpful logistically at times, but I would never leave it on without a distinct purpose.While I believe China’s tracking crosses the creepy line when it comes to privacy, I can’t help but think how this ability would come in handy for police and authorities apprehending suspects faster and more accurately, for example during the search for the Boston Marathon bombers. Unfortunately, we are approaching a point where we have to choose between security and privacy.

  8. realjakejordon · ·

    I am pretty cynical of most of the technology we have today. I think Facebook’s recent debacle has reinforced that a little bit for me. As mentioned in @tarakane36‘s presentation yesterday, we spend 5 hours a day on our phones. We basically live in them. Google and Facebook have so much of our information because they pretty much spend more time with us than most people do. My point is that while this technology seems invasive, I’m not sure it is much more invasive than what we already willingly give up on a daily basis. If the government wants to know where we are, they can probably do it relatively effortlessly.

    I think its also funny how much the creepy/cool line has shifted in recent years. I’m of the opinion that a lot less people think the idea of “Read Receipts” and SnapMaps and FindYourFriends is creepy than if you had polled the same population 5 years ago. What is invasive appears to change with technology. Again, I’m sure I’m on the cynical side, but I’m really not a fan.

  9. mqzhang · ·

    Thanks for your enlightening post! I think that some tracking technologies are benign or even fun such as that offered by Domino’s Pizza, others, such as Friend Tracking in iOS, seem downright disconcerting to use. I value the use of technology as a tool to enlighten and educate others, but certain topics seem unnecessary to learn about, such as what time I left my home this morning, or how long I spent at the doctor’s before coming into work. While this kind of information may be somewhat benign or useless by itself, it can be woven in with other data points to determine information about myself that I would never voluntarily share with anyone else. Like many others have said in the past, the price of convenience, like many other things, isn’t free. We pay a premium to have access to features that seem to predict our decisions before we even think about them ourselves.

    Regarding China’s initiative to track all those under the eye of it’s surveillance cameras, I don’t believe this is too strange a concept to contend with on its own since you are photographed and recorded dozens of times by cameras while walking down a city block in London already. China seems to only be catching up to the surveillance techniques already employed by densely-populated Western civilizations. However, China does have the distinction of being much power centrally-concentrated in terms of power than those other nations. As such, the ramifications of their decision to monitor so many people so closely may be a bit more alarming to consider.

  10. phanauer1 · ·

    Great post! Good outline of how we’re using this technology and one place that it is going. No matter where you think this falls on the creepy/cool line, I think that past a certain point, we won’t be able to justify not using this technology. The world runs on big data, and people are much more open to things when they can use them rather than when they’re being used. That said, the way that technology is progressing, especially in medical fields, the benefits of advanced, constant, and smart tracking will be substantial and will likely lead to a huge shift in our feelings about being tracked. At this point, we’re very nervous, which probably goes back to the trust leap we discussed in class. But as was mentioned in the Spotify presentation toward the beginning of class, the more data is collected on you, the better your experience with something will be. Personalized playlists on Spotify are one of the best ways to discover new music, and I think most people are comfortable with Spotify collecting their data so they can have great new artists suggested to them. I foresee similar things with medical technologies as well as many other technologies, and once we start seeing great advantages, people will change their tune and embraced being tracked.

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