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Downtown Madison Inc launches AI location tracking program to aid businesses; privacy is a concern

A new DMI program will use cell phone location data artificial intelligence to track downtown consumers. Photo by Omar Waheed.

A new way to gather data downtown. Downtown Madison Inc. (DMI) recently subscribed to a new artificial intelligence service to track consumers’ movements and provide downtown businesses with valuable data, but concerns are in the wind as one expert warns of ethical implications

Downtown Madison Inc. subscribed to a new service called Placer AI, an artificial intelligence tool to gather location and foot traffic data by tracking cell phone movements, in hopes to gather data to help businesses downtown make informed decisions on operations and to help the city plan for future development. Dorothea Salo, a UW-Madison professor and expert on personal privacy, online surveillance and data ethics, sees the good intentions behind the idea, but is wary of later implications of Placer AI’s use in Madison.

In the last Lunch(Up)date earlier this month, DMI President Jason Ilstrup went over the 2023 State of Downtown report in which he revealed, in brief passing, the recent subscription to a new AI service to help gather data. The intention behind the subscription is to help businesses make more informed decisions on operations, like hours and  staffing levels, and help the city plan developments.

“Everything is very new. We just subscribed to a Placer AI within the month,” Illstrup said. “It’s another tool in our tool chest to really understand who’s traveling downtown, who’s working downtown, who are the pedestrians that are on the street downtown, who’s attending Capitol Square or night market or a Forward [Madison] game or whatnot.”

DMI already uses a few other means to gather foot traffic data downtown. The group, before adding Placer AI into the mix, has used pedestrian counters on select streets and examined vacancy rates, but those lack the power the new service has.

Placer AI uses cell data pinged from over 500 partner apps, according to Placer AI’s website.

The service pings cellphones using any one of the hundreds of partnered applications to collect data on where a pedestrian in a monitored area is going. The data is then anonymized for use.DMI plans to publish the data on its website.

The addition to the site is currently in development. Data will be available in real time and open for anyone to see so DMI can achieve its goal — help businesses and the city make more informed decisions using data.

“One thing we could do is understand exactly how many workers are back downtown and when they’re working and what days of the week they’re working,” Ilstrup said. “There are many restaurants that depend on, let’s just say, office workers for a lunch crowd. If we know, you know, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, they’re really the days that people are coming back, that’s the days they can staff up or be open.”

Plans are still currently in the works to geteverything organized and the team managing the operation situated, but the goal is to have the data accessible sometime in January, Ilstrup said.

But with new tech comes its own morass of issues, and one Salo wants to bring more attention too.

Currently, there is no explicit way that informs users that they are contributing data for DMI to use from Placer AI. Users are notified in a sense, with updated terms of service from apps.

“We know nobody reads that stuff. It’s not consent in any meaningful sense,” Salo said. “Why do we think it’s okay to surveil people on this level? We know there are a whole bunch of harms associated with it.”

Salo points to Google’s recent announcement, reported by CBS, that it would stop collecting and sharing location data from its Maps app due to the negative attention that comes with geofencing warrants, a type of warrant where the government seeks to get data on who was at a certain place and when, as one instance of harm from data collection.

Salo warns of a slippery slope when it comes to gathering data like this to make decisions and the potential for later exploitation despite “good intentions.”

“There’s a concept called… surveillance creep. Which is the idea that when surveillance gets started, it typically starts really small, and there’s an ironclad, ‘Oh, this is definitely going to be so good for everybody,’ rationale behind it,” Salo said. “Inevitably, this always happens, you get uses of the data that the original folks would not think are okay, that the subject of the surveillance certainly would not think is okay.”

Salo also noted continued concern for the safety and protection for protestors downtown. Political groups, and law enforcement, have been known to track cell phones for protestors, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Dorothea Salo. UW-Madison photo.

“In the last couple years — three years — a lot of the demonstration action has been focused on trying to do ally work with communities that are already over-surveilled, that are already oppressed,” Salo said.

With good intentions behind DMI using Placer AI, Salo is concerned about potential perversion of its use and its effects on labor as data continues to inform decisions.

While DMI wants to use data gathered from Placer AI to help places like restaurants make better staffing decisions and business hours, there is a potential for that to go awry.

“The optimal opening hours, the optimal business hours, the optimal staffing for the business, is not necessarily going to be the best for the people who are working in that business,” Salo said. “There’s all kinds of really nasty ways that data addiction can go.”