Location-Based Services can be Used Safety

As with any technology there can be some safety and privacy risks associated with location-based-services, but by paying attention to privacy features, they can be used safely.


by Larry Magid
September 20, 2010 


For better or worse, today’s cell phones not only know where their users are located, but have technology that can broadcast that information to friends and authorities. When used carefully, these services can be fun or reassuring. But before you or your kids start to use any location-based-service (LBS) be sure you know how to protect your or your child’s privacy.

Virtually all modern phones have GPS receivers as well as the ability to identify the nearest cellular tower and most smartphones now can access Wi-Fi, which also can be used to pinpoint location. The phone’s location can be used by 911 operators to locate you in an emergency but also can be used by application programs offered by carriers and third-party developers.

For now, LBS applications can be divided roughly into three categories: services that let others track your location; services that let you actively “check in” to places; and services designed to present you with ads based on where you are.

Active and Passive

Some of these are “active,” meaning that the person with the phone has to do something to disclose his or her location, such as use a service to request the location of the nearest sushi bar. Others are “passive,” which means that once they are set up, they continue to operate until terminated. Those include child tracker services, which are initiated by parents and can continue to track the child unless the parent terminates the service.

Popular location services include Foursquare and Gowalla, which can be used to “check in” to locations such as restaurants. Facebook recently introduced a similar service called “Places” that not only lets users check themselves into a location but allows their friends to check them in as well — subject to the user’s privacy settings, which include being able to block others from checking you in.

Other services, like Google Latitude, Loopt and Glympse, allow people to broadcast their location as they go from place to place. With Loopt and Latitude for example, you can permit friends to see where you are at any given moment. And the person’s access to your location remains in effect until you take it away, which could be a problem if a friend becomes an ex-friend. Glympse also allows people to see where you are but you have to initiate the process each time you want to be tracked. And to eliminate the ability for someone to use it to stalk you, it automatically times out after as few as 15 minutes but never more than 4 hours.

Other types of services can be embedded into devices, such as digital cameras. Location-aware cameras (including most smartphones) are capable of embedding location information in the metadata associated with digital pictures. If you post those pictures online there is a chance that they will reveal your location unless you disable location for your camera application (as can be done on most phones).

Known and imagined risks

As with any new technology, there are known risks and imaginable risks. Although not common, there have been reported cases of adults being stalked as a result of the technology. There are, of course, privacy implications and there have been reports of security researchers who have been able to track people without their permission by accessing cell call logs obtained from phone carriers.

But just because things could go wrong doesn’t mean that they will.  Speaking at a location-based services safety panel at the 2010 Internet Governance Forum in Vilnius, Lithuania, John Carr, with the European NGO Alliance for Child Safety Online, opened the session by outlining the potential risks of LBS but pointing out that, so far, he’s not aware of a child having been harmed as a result of this technology. Still, Carr worries about the potential for harm. He is pressuring companies to adopt a code of practice that would include requiring permission of both the parent and the child before anyone under 18 could be the subject of location tracking, and that would prohibit sharing a child’s location data with “groups of people or to public or semipublic places.”

Another panelist, European Parliament member Sabine Verheyen, echoed Carr’s concerns and indicated that the Parliament will be considering legislation to address child safety issues with location-based services.

Use caution but don’t over-react

While I fully agree that industry and government (including our Congress) need to consider the safety implications of location services, I think it needs to be approached with a positive attitude. Like other technologies, the vast majority of users will find ways to use them safely and appropriately. I’m not sure exactly what services might emerge from the technology but I have no doubt that many will be beneficial to both adults and children.

The last thing we need to do is stifle a technology simply because it has the potential for harm. It also has the potential for great good, but the only way for that to happen is to allow companies to develop and test technologies. Regulatory authorities around the world have a responsibility to be watchful but they must do so with an open mind.

For location safety and privacy advice, see ConnectSafely’s Safety Tips for Location-Sharing.

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