by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Snapchat is the latest app to add real-time location sharing, which means you can use it to inform friends and family of your exact location even if the app is closed. Google Maps for both iOS and Android, Apple’s Find My app and Glympse are among many apps that enable you to share where you are. The Snapchat feature, which was just announced, is off by default and can be turned on for between 15 minutes and 8 hours.
There was previously a method for sharing your location while using the app, but as Snapchat said in a blog post, this new feature provides Snapchat users “the option to share their real-time location with a close friend even while their app is closed. With this new buddy system, Snapchatters can throw their phone in their pocket and head out the door, feeling confident that the people they trust most are looking out for them while they’re on the move.” As an extra safety precaution, you can only share your location with your Snapchat friends — it is never publicly available.”
Can enhance safety and peace of mind
For the most part, location sharing is a tool to enhance safety and peace of mind because it enables you to share your location with someone you trust, which can be a life-saver if you’re in a potentially dangerous situation. For example, in ConnectSafely’s Quick-Guide to Online Dating, we recommend that, for a first date, “Consider using a tool from the (dating) service or a third party that can help protect you during the date by tracking your location and allowing you to easily get help without having to make a call.” As part of its launch of location sharing, Snapchat partnered with It’s On Us, a non-profit dedicated to combating campus sexual assault through campus awareness and prevention education programs.
Location sharing can also enhance peace of mind when a loved-one is away from home. With each other’s knowledge and permission, my wife and I share our locations with each other via Google Maps. Although I don’t use it routinely, I have used it to check in on her when she’s on the road. About a year ago, she and my daughter were overdue returning from a hike. I didn’t know where they were hiking, so I used the app to locate her. It turns out she was out of range, but the app did report that she had been in the parking lot of a state park a few hours earlier. I got worried as it started to get dark and called the ranger station, which sent someone to find her. It helped to know where she parked, and when they did find them on the trail, the ranger called to let me know they were OK.
Apps like this can also be used to estimate a person’s arrival time, which can be reassuring and even useful if you’re holding up dinner for them.
Avoiding potential dangers
Location sharing could be dangerous if it reveals where you are to people whom you might not want to share that with. It can be for privacy reasons or safety reasons, especially if you’re in an abusive relationship or have a reason to hide your location from a specific person or group of people. This could include journalists and activists who may be harassed because of their work or anyone who is concerned about being followed or stalked.
Along with other precautions, Snapchat mitigates this risk by allowing users to only share their live location for 15 minutes, 1 hour or 8 hours, but other services, including Apple’s Find App and Google Maps do not have such duration settings. If you’re using such an app, it’s important to review your location sharing settings periodically to make sure you’re still comfortable with whom you’re sharing that information. Relationships sometimes deteriorate, and someone you trust could later become someone you have a reason not to trust.
It’s also important to be aware of who might have access to your phone, especially if you’re in a potentially abusive relationship. If you put your phone down — including when you’re sleeping — it’s possible for someone with physical access to configure an app — including Snapchat — to track you. If you are in that situation, make sure that your phone locks automatically and that anyone who might track you doesn’t know your phone’s PIN number or password. For extra caution, you can check your apps when you leave the house to make sure no one has turned on location sharing or downloaded a location-sharing app.
You can find ConnectSafely’s new Quick-Guide to Snapchat Location Sharing along with instructions for sharing and unsharing location on Google Maps and Apple’s Find My app at Connectsafely.org/location/.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Snapchat and other technology companies.