How geolocation technologies can affect your online privacy

Many tech forecasts have highlighted “locational privacy” as a potential privacy issue to watch. There’s no denying that location-based Web apps add value. FourSquare offers incentives for “checking in” with local merchants on your smartphone, and Gowalla and BrightKite provide personalized tips for what to do wherever you are. Yet such services also carry with them very real risks, both to your electronic privacy and your physical person. Until the ambiguities surrounding locational privacy protection are resolved, you should be cautious about what kinds of location-based personal data you share online.  There are many ways how geolocation technologies can affect your online privacy.

Geolocation is a boon for burglars and stalkers.

To illustrate the dangers of geolocation services, a proof-of-concept website called PleaseRobMe.com once collected locational data from social media applications in real time and then posted the addresses of users who were away from home. The site no longer provides this information, but the point remains: Any tech-savvy thief could set up a similar system to target homes for burglary. Applied in reverse this technology could allow any stalker to track down an individual in a secluded place.

Some potential solutions that would allow for full use of location-based services and robust privacy protection have emerged. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has laid out the technical aspects of such a system in detail. In essence the plan would require encrypted data to be transmitted in such a way that only your online friends would know how to decode it. Such solutions, however, don’t yet exist in current location-based services.

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What the law says about locational privacy

The issue of whether people have the right to protect the privacy of their whereabouts didn’t exist before inexpensive electronic tracking devices became so readily available. Existing privacy laws don’t address the issue directly, and lawmakers can’t agree on how much location-based personal privacy individuals are entitled to.  So, there are still many legal ways how geolocation technologies can affect your online privacy

Take the of placing of GPS tracking devices on police suspects’ vehicles without a warrant, for example. 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 don’t need a warrant to search the contents of an individual’s mobile phone. The data obtained from such a search would include logs from the user’s locational services.

The issue of where locational data and privacy laws intersect remains murky. Americans currently 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

As it stands, geolocation apps carry some inherent risk. Until services designed with privacy protection at their core become standard, you’ll need to participate wisely. Consider using the following suggestions as a baseline, in order to mitigate the ways how geolocation technologies can affect your online privacy.

Keep your friend list small. When using any app that shares locational data, make sure that only people you really trust have access. Frequently cull your friends list so that it includes only active users whom actually know. Casual users who rarely check in can threaten your electronic privacy because they make easy targets for hackers.

Make sure that your profile uses the site’s maximum security settings. This won’t stop a court order or a skillful hacker from accessing your locational data, but it will make the job harder. Nosy individuals shouldn’t simply be able to Google your exact whereabouts.

Avoid sharing scheduling information like your commute. 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 cafĂ© where you stop for a bagel on the way to the office every morning.

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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 that they can take their time cleaning out your home. Similarly, if you normally check into businesses only where you live in Chicago, avoid doing the same while you’re in Miami for the week, as this tells thieves that your home is potentially unattended.

Scrub the Web of your personal data. 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 like Spokeo and PeopleSmart.

Clement Lefebvre is a seasoned writer with expertise in online reputation management and Internet privacy. He’s also an experienced academic and scientific editor.

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