We Know Where You Live: Privacy Implications of Location-Based Services

Michael Spooner

“Rafa Benitez has this morning explained why he continues to play the rotation system. He says it’s to the keep the burglars guessing who’s at home or who’s in the team.” Anon.

The ability to know where someone is at all times, or to make your own whereabouts publicly known via a social network is fraught with potential privacy issues.

This blog entry discusses the explosive growth of geo-location data and associated services powered by the widespread integration of GPS technologies into mobile phones raises privacy issues that include problems of anonymisation, consent and data sharing. The full article on which this entry was based is available to PLC subscribers here.

What do we mean by geo-location data services? These can be anything from the Tom-Tom GPS app on your mobile phone to specific services such as Whrrl and Google Latitude which allow users to broadcast their current location to online networks from their mobile phones. There has also been talk that the government is looking to utilise this technology to impose road charges on users based on their exact journeys in an effort to ease congestion.

So what are the issues with geo-location? There is the obvious potential for both stalking and burglary if a user’s exact location can be ascertained. As a case in point, and to explain the opening quote further, the homes of Liverpool football players were burgled so often when they were playing away matches in the Champions League that one bookmaker, admittedly in rather poor taste, even decided to open a book on the next Liverpool player to be burgled whilst playing. Research has also shown that, even if a user takes steps to anonymise their location, it is relatively simple to reverse engineer geo-location data and to combine it with publicly available information in order to identify individual users.

Despite the potential privacy issues, there is no doubt that geo-location services could be an enormously useful tool – for example to enable employers to identify the whereabouts of their employees who are based in the field.

What should be done? Datanomy agrees with the PLC article that two things should happen to reduce privacy issues with geo-location services. Firstly, service providers should be pro-active about educating users of the privacy risks in using geo-location services. Although this may sound counter-intuitive from the business’s perspective, by making customers aware of the risks from the outset and by allowing users to adapt their privacy settings to suit their personal preferences the business will build customer confidence in the service being provided. For services of this nature the main risks should be presented in short, easily digestible, bites rather than included in a lengthy privacy policy which, frankly, most users tend never to read.
Secondly, if the geo-location industry wants self-regulation and not more legislation, it will need to be pro-active about establishing a code of practice to set sensible standards for the handling of users’ personal data, perhaps supported by a new industry body created with the aim of promoting the safe and sensible use of geo-location services.

NOTE: This blog is a summary of a PLC article. The full article is available on PLC and, if you are a paid subscriber of PLC, can be accessed here.

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