Location privacy issues


I am often asked if I am concerned that the rise in location based services threatens the privacy of users. I wrote a short article on this subject a few months ago which you can read in the November edition of Geoconnexion International.

GPS is increasingly appearing in cellphones and services using the location of the phone are become progressively more sophisticated. This raises the concern that users may lose control of their location information. Just as the internet massively accelerated the spread and malevolence of computer viruses; and e-commerce gave rise to new and efficient methods of identity theft; so the transmission of location information may stimulate a new generation of cyber-crimes.


Right from the start services are being designed with opt-out clauses, parental consents, confirmations to transmit location information, etc., all of which are essential, however in themselves are insufficient. We all have a new learning-curve to climb to become street-wise with our location information.


A more robust approach is to design services from the outset to absolutely minimise the transmission of precise location data. For example, why does my iPod need to transmit my precise location for Google Earth to display my location on a map? This is a simple application which can surely be just as effective without my location leaving the terminal.


Protecting privacy needs to be designed-in from the start. Application design, network technology and even the location technology itself all have a role to play.



  1. Thanks for the comment, Claudio.
    I agree with your point, but I think it’s only half the story. What’s going on is a trade – I release my information expecting something in return. However the information that I release is often used for more than just the provision of the service – most obviously marketing and promotion – and it is the ulterior motive that is more than likely the primary driver for the service provider. This leads to more aggressive collection of location information than is strictly necessary to deliver the service – as my simple iPod/Google Earth example illustrates.
    Of course, as you point out, the choice still resides with the user. But since we’re all new to this, it’s hard to judge exactly what we’re opting into, and all the possible implications.
    Whilst I think the approach taken by networks and service providers is mostly responsible so far, there is more that could be done. For example, for any given application or service:
    – Is precise location information really required, or will a coarse estimate suffice?
    – Is real-time location information needed, or can it be collected later?
    – Can the same service be provided by processing the location information in the terminal rather than the network?
    Collecting only the appropriate level of information requires an end-to-end approach to design, starting with the location technology itself and involving the application running on the terminal, the back-channel or network, and ultimately the design of the service itself.

  2. As I wrote in my Blog back in January, I believe this is the paradox of social networks in general and those based on location in particular. I want to make my information public but at the same time I want to keep the information secured (actually not the information but myself).
    Looking over the other side of the table, the value of a social network resides on the information you provide. The lack of privacy is one of the pillars that sustain the business models of many, if not all, social networks. When privacy issues are raised, we usually ask what the companies are doing to protect their customers. Expecting the companies to protect your privacy is like expecting the cat to safeguard the cream; this is the fuel for their business. It’s not the companies that need to protect the information, rather YOU the customer.
    You can read my full post at http://bdnooz.com/2009/01/20/location-based-social-networks-is-privacy-overrated/

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