Should We Be Freaked Out About Tile, the World’s Cheapest New Location Tracker?
Aug 30 2013
Tile's sexy infomercial wants to sell you on location tracking.
If you’ve been frolicking around the internet lately as an identifiable 18–34 year old, you may have noticed banner ads for a new, thin, plastic one-inch-by-one-inch square location tracker called Tile—that’s obviously being marketed to our young, cell phone- and wallet-losing demographic. If you watch the video above, you’ll see how this magic, matchbook-size device will allow you to remotely track your lost items, all for the seemingly reasonable price of $18.95. So, if you drop your keys under your bed, or forget your pet that you tied to a post in the park and walked away from because you’re a terrible person and a terrible pet owner, Tile can help you find these things again.
Not only can you track the whereabouts of your own property with Tile, you can add friends to your Tile social network who—in the event you lose a backpack that you stitched a Tile into—can help you search for your lost items using their Tile app, by triggering the location of your Tile, that’s attached to the object you are looking to find. What a world we live in!
Anyway, when I first saw Tile being advertised, I got an itchy, all-over heebie-jeebies feeling. Firstly, adding a whole new matrix of location data to our digital world of oversharing has some potentially scary implications. Do we really need a brand-new social network, set up to monitor the whereabouts of our personal property? And what could be done with that data if it were to be placed in the hands of someone with malicious intent? Or, better yet, the NSA and the United States government who we now know have paid millions of dollars to companies like Google and Yahoo to make them more compliant for the purposes of government surveillance.
But mass government surveillance programs aside, I also wondered what exactly you could track with a Tile. Since Tile is just a small plastic square with an adhesive backing, could you slap one of those on your cheating ex-lover’s car, fire up the Tile app, and track their whereabouts through the day?
Since the official FAQ glosses over most of the privacy and security concerns that Tile could potentially cause, I wrote the company and asked them some of my potentially paranoid questions. After getting bounced around from department to department, I was told, as far as sticking a Tile to someone’s car and following them around with your iPhone, it’s not exactly that simple, because Tile’s range is kinda crappy.
A Tile does not contain a GPS unit or a cellular radio and cannot provide continuous automatic location updates. Therefore it is not a good solution for real-time tracking of moving objects. The goal of Tile is to help people keep track of or find items they are likely to lose, and will not support long-distance tracking of moving items.
So basically, if you lose your keys and there’s a Tile attached to it, you will need to be within 100 to 150 feet of your lost property for your phone to recognize it’s in the presence of your precious, lost Tile. This means if you were to clandestinely put a Tile on someone or something you wanted to keep secret tabs on, you would need to be so close to them in the first place that you’d essentially be stalking them anyway. And while you could theoretically boost the range of your Tile tracking capabilities by having a bunch of co-conspirators with the Tile app, tracking that same Tile you put onto someone else’s property—that would be a wildly inefficient criminal operation, and again, would be tantamount to stalking anyway.
All in all, it doesn’t sound like Tile is going to produce a serious security vulnerability given its poor location range, nor does it sound like the perfect solution to finding stolen property, given its limited range. It does, however, raise interesting questions about the consequences of putting our personal property on the grid. Plus, the sleekness of Tile’s design, and its youth-targeted marketing campaign, will undeniably result in a surge in location tracking usage. As Peter Sunde, co-founder of the Pirate Bay and the developer of a new encrypted messaging program with an Apple inspired graphical user interface told me, “To get people to use important technology, you simply have to make it more attractive than anything else, to get them to care enough to move over. Few people would buy a really ugly car—even if it were super fast. They'd rather buy the car that looks fast and is slow as hell.”
Evidently, Tile’s limited technological capabilities are not a major cause for concern, but the acceptance and reliance on location trackers in society could certainly result in a new wave of security threats, as the technology gets stronger and people learn new and crazy ways to manipulate it. This kind of tech has been available to law enforcement and spy-shop consumers for a while now, but we can be sure that having a cool, sexy marketing machine behind location trackers will put them in more people’s hands than ever. That’s not necessarily something I’m very comfortable with but, hey, welcome to the future right?
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire
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