Location Based Services & privacy

February 22nd, 2010 Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

FourSquare Logo

Although I was tempted to write a “War and Peace” article on the issues of privacy surrounding Location Based Services, I won’t.  Last week a website was set up called Please Rob Me, which tries to show the risk of providing too much information on the Internet, which could lead to impacts in the real world; the point the website is making is that by providing information as to where your home is, and the fact you aren’t there, could increase your risk of being robbed.  Now, although it’s unlikely a robber is sitting watching your FourSquare / Brightkite / Google Latitude check-ins, the risk still exists.

So, what can be done about it?  Well, first of all, it’s well worth reading these articles (here from FourSquare, and here from Brightkite), but in essence, here are some key thoughts:

  • When you check-in, think carefully about the settings you use, and whether you want (or need) the world to know about you are at this location (especially if the location is your home).
  • Think about whether it’s wise to then have this information passed over to Facebook and/or Twitter.  Whereas FourSquare and Brightkite especially offer privacy controls, once you publish the information and location on Twitter (and increasingly Facebook with their new privacy settings), it’s available for anyone and everyone to see and search for.  Oh, and a lot of people are getting fed up with Twitter streams filling up with FourSquare check-ins, so it’s wise to turn this broadcasting off, if only to not annoy your friends.
  • Don’t forget other services, such as Plazes, Dopplr, TripIt and Upcoming also reveal where you are going to be in the future, which you may want to think twice about too; although some, like TripIt, allow you to set some trips as private so they won’t display in public information until you change that per-trip setting.
  • If you are using Fire Eagle to broker your location information (and it’s a very useful tool in this respect), again, remember it has the ability to control whether applications / websites can read and/or write your location information, and if reading it, what level of accuracy you give them access to.
  • As Brightkite mention, if you realise afterwards it might not have been a wise move, look for a delete option to remove the information.

If you look at my profiles on these services (and others like it, let’s not forget this problem isn’t new, it’s just FourSquare and Brightkite are getting more and more users), you’ll often find the I don’t broadcast any location unless it’s to friends, and even then, I may not reveal all the information; on Google Latitude for example, I can set some people to only getting city-level location information, so instead of being able to precisely pinpoint me on a map, they simply get a rough location; this is a useful feature for people you may speak to online occasionally, but don’t have enough information to be able to implicitly trust them (note: this isn’t about not trusting them at all, in my opinion it’s about whether you would tell them your whole life history warts’n’all).

As a passing comment, the latest version of Gravity, v1.30 (6350), includes support for FourSquare, as well as offering geo-location facilities; for S60 5th Edition and S60 3rd Edition FP2 devices (Nokia E72 etc.), this can be either cell ID location information, WiFi positioning information, or GPS information, whereas for S60 3rd Edition FP1 devices, it’s currently only cell ID and WiFi positioning (due to needing to get each version of the app through the long Symbian Signed process to allow access to the GPS information on an FP1 device).  If you are not a FourSquare fan, we’ve recently covered the S60 5th Edition Brightkite client (see here) that could be used instead.

So, although you’ll find I have accounts on most of the location based social networking services (Plazes, FourSquare, Brightkite, Google Latitude, TripIt, Dopplr, Upcoming), you’ll often find I’m (as FourSquare nicely phrase it) “Off the Grid”, or only visible if we’re already friends, and equally, although I have the ability to provide geo-location information on my tweets, I rarely do, as (in my opinion) it’s often not relevant where the tweet was actually written.

Also, you’re more likely to find me using location based services that have a range of privacy options, in the way that Brightkite used to (unless I’m mistaken this isn’t possible now) and Google Latitude still does; allowing not just control over who can access the information, but how accurately they can access it.


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