Find your privacy comfort zone before using location-based services

Location-based services like Google Latitude, Foursquare, Gowalla and, more recently, Facebook Places (currently rolling out gradually to US users) are tremendously useful and fun to use. But they also highlight some pretty serious privacy issues you should be thinking about if you use these or similar location-based services.

You need to think clearly about the kind of location information you want to release onto the web before you get started.

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Location-based services tend to work best when you use them on your mobile device. They typically get a sense of your location either using cell tower triangulation (not terribly accurate) or your device’s GPS receiver (accurate to a few metres if you get a good signal) and then give you information about nearby services, places and connections.

Foursquare is one of the most popular of the various location-based services available these days, although Facebook Places will probably rapidly eclipse Foursquare as it is rolled out to Facebook’s 500 million users. Foursquare and Gowalla both use a “check-in” model where you notify your friends who you have authorised where you are and what you are doing.

Foursquare has placed a fair amount of emphasis on a game-like aspect of the service and on users ability to collecting points. These points rank users who compete for mayorships of various locations, either for the ego value or because being a mayor of a specific participating location can lead to discounts or other benefits.

Foursquare and Gowalla both allow users to create new locations which are added to the public location database that other users can access too. This presents a challenge from a privacy perspective. Some users will register their homes, schools and other sensitive locations with Foursquare and Gowalla and regardless of whether they check in at these locations, the locations themselves become publicly visible to other users who may not even be following the locations’ creators.

Publicly declaring your home’s location, your children’s school and other more sensitive locations can have very real personal safety and general privacy consequences which you may not be comfortable with. Sites like were launched to demonstrate the risks of sharing too much location-based information and local insurers have started to take notice of this growing trend and may start considering increasing insurance premiums for users who make use of these services.

It is important to bear in mind that some activities on these location-based services are publicly visible. That fact should guide your privacy choices when using these services.

When it comes to location-based services in particular, it is a good idea to make certain assumptions about your activities. Aside from their general publicity, you should assume that your posts, once published, are out of your control and in public. Make this assumption regardless of your privacy settings because, as Facebook has demonstrated over and over, privacy settings can be changed.

You should also assume that the wrong people may be seeing your posts too. Taking these assumptions into account, the next questions you should ask yourself is, “How much location-based information do I want to make available and to whom”?

Consider drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, and make a list of what personal information you will keep secret online before you begin making uses of these services. This list could include your home address, your bank, the school your children attend and so on. Assume everything you post using location-based services is visible to everyone and decide if you are comfortable with that. It sounds a little extreme but this is a new reality we are coming to terms with.

Location-based services are terrific tools which we can use to discover new places, connect with our friends and even find day-to-day services nearby but our activities can also compromise our personal safety and our privacy generally. By all means, use these services but use some common sense when you do and protect your privacy.

  • The Professional Education Project of the Faculty of Law, University of Cape Town is presenting the UCT Internet and the Law course. The course starts on 13 September 2010, click here for more details.
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