As smartphone apps become further and further integrate into our daily lives, you have to wonder if we’re in control of our desires or if mobile applications are starting to controlling us.

To discover the ease with which app users can be manipulated, researchers from the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University underwent a study to determine whether they could change the habits of a smartphone user’s mobility through gaming and social-networking applications. The goal was to compel them to visit areas less frequented.

How can an application affect on our decisions on a daily basis? Like with advertising, we can be compelled by Foursquare to achieve or maintain our “Mayor” standing at a particular restaurant or venue. We might be manipulated, for instance, to travel not to the local pizza shop, but instead to the Chinese food store that we’ve been visiting repeatedly for the last month.

The research was conducted by John Rula and Fabián E. Bustamant and titled, “Crowd (Soft) Control Moving Beyond the Opportunistic.” They used four foundational elements that work together offer individuals incentives:

Location: The location desired stated in terms of latitude and longitude, and optionally altitude and heading.

Action: The type of action to be triggered at the particular location and time.

Expiration Time: The time when the request is no longer valid; this is used to control the timing and relevancy of actions.

Ranking: The relative importance of the location. This can be used by the game to differentiate incentives by priority

Rula and Bustamant created an Android-based augmented reality game titled, “Ghost Hunter,” which required users to chase monsters and ghosts throughout the neighborhood. The objective of the game was to “zap” the ghosts and monsters by capturing the augmented image on their mobile phone’s camera. But what users were not aware of was the researcher’s underlying intent.

The researchers had positioned the ghosts in exact locations, around a predetermined building. The resulting photographs of the “ghosts” enabled the researchers to create a 3D picture of the building from the collected images. While the photographic modeling of the building was successfully crowdsourced by the unsuspecting “Ghost Hunter” gamers, what the researchers had also discovered was the ability to compel users to capture images of the building from angles and locations typically not frequented, as the image below indicates.

While mobile users are concerned about their privacy, the ease with which they can be “soft” controlled raises a whole new issue altogether. Games and social networks not only offer a means of learning more about the people who use them, they can potentially offer a way to control their actions. Manipulating users into conducting illegal acts or luring them to dangerous locations is very much a reality.

Only days ago, three Japanese tourists were mislead by their GPS into the Moreton Bay in Australia during a low tide and became trapped in the thick mud. With the tide rising, they were forced to abandon their waterlogged rental car.

Ultimately, users will have to decide for themselves where they draw the line. As the research reiterates, “As augmented reality gamers can be trusted to exercise their best judgment during play, users of extended location based applications should be trusted to judge the suggestions made through CSC (Crowd Soft Control).”