Geolocation Tools and Online Privacy

How Geolocation and Online Privacy are Connected

Many tech forecasts at the end of last year highlighted “locational privacy” as a potential hot-button issue for 2011. Location-based Web apps add undeniable value. FourSquare offers reward incentives for “checking in” with local merchants on your smartphone, and Gowalla and BrightKite provide personalized tips for what to do in the surrounding area. Yet there are very real risks, to both your electronic privacy and your physical person, when using these geolocation services. Until the ambiguities surrounding locational privacy protection are resolved, you should be very cautious about what kind of location-based personal data you share online.




Geolocation is a boon for burglars and stalkers

To illustrate how geolocation tools and online privacy are part and parcel, a proof-of-concept website named sprung up in 2010. This site collected locational data from social media applications in real time, posting the addresses of users who were away from home. The site no longer provides this information, but the danger remains. Any tech-savvy thief could set up a similar system to target homes for burglary. Applied in reverse, this technology would allow any stalker to track down an individual in a secluded place.

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Existing privacy laws do not address the issue directly, and lawmakers are conflicted as to how much location-based personal privacy individuals should be entitled to.

There are potential solutions that would allow for full use of geolocation-based services and robust protection of privacy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has laid out the technical aspects of such a system in detail. In essence, it would require the transmission of encrypted data in such a way that only your online friends would know how to decode it. Such implementations, however, do not yet exist in current location-based services.


What the law says about locational privacy

The issue of whether or not people have a right to protect the privacy of their whereabouts did not exist prior to the development of inexpensive electronic tracking devices. Existing privacy laws do not address the issue directly, and lawmakers are conflicted as to how much location-based personal privacy individuals should be entitled to.

Police placing GPS tracking devices on the vehicles of suspects without first obtaining a warrant have received mixed signals from lawmakers. Some judges have accepted the consequent convictions while others have declared such tracking to be a violation of the fourth amendment.

In August 2010, a federal appeals court overturned three previous rulings allowing the practice, so for now police do need a warrant to place a tracking device on your car. In January 2011, however, the California Supreme Court went the opposite direction, declaring that police do not need a warrant to search the contents of an individual’s cell phone. Such contents would include logs from the locational services you use.

The issue of where geolocation tools and online privacy laws intersect remains murky. Currently, it seems that Americans have few clear-cut rights when it comes to law enforcement and the contents of their mobile phones, let alone their locational data.


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Five tips on using geolocation apps responsibly

For the time being, geolocation apps carry some inherent risk. Until services designed with privacy protection at their core become standard, you will need to be extremely judicious with how you use these tools. Consider adopting the following tips as a baseline:

  • Keep your friend list small. For any application in which you will share locational data, you want to make sure only people you really trust have access. On an ongoing basis, cull your friend list so that it only includes active users who share your tastes and interests. Casual users who rarely check in can threaten your electronic privacy, as they make easy targets for hackers.
  • Make sure your profile is on its maximum-security setting. This won’t stop a court order or a skillful hacker from gaining access to your locational data, but it will make the job harder. Nosy individuals should not be able to simply search Google to find your exact whereabouts.
  • Avoid sharing information about routine voyages like commutes. Posting your daily schedule in a public forum is one of the most dangerous things you can do. Even simple updates like “going to work” posted on a regular basis provide a lot of information. Similarly, you probably shouldn’t “check in” with your smartphone at the café where you stop for a bagel on the way to the office every morning.
  • Never post about extended absences. Don’t do this until after the fact, and avoid using location-based services away from your hometown. Status updates like “Gone to Hawaii for two weeks” tell thieves they have an extended period of time to clean out your home. Similarly, if you normally only check into businesses in Chicago, avoid doing the same while you’re in Miami for the week, as this is a clear signal that a thief has at least a few hours to break into your home.
  • Scrub the Web of your personal data as you work with geolocation tools and online privacy.  Your physical address is a key piece of information for would-be burglars. Locational services are much safer to use if you remove your personal information from people-finder services such as Spokeo and PeopleSmart. See this ReputationDefender Resource Center article for detailed instructions. If manually opting out seems too time consuming, consider MyPrivacy, offered by ReputationDefender, which can automate the removal process across dozens of people-finder services.

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