Where Exactly are You?

…or the problem with location data.

Geolocation by hawaii

Occasionally, as an end of month treat, I’ll pop down to my local pub and make use of their free wifi. They sell quite nice food and it’s good to get out of the house for a while. Most people wouldn’t be able to tell where I’m working from. It’s all part of that ‘beyond the office’ thing I’ve talked about many a time on this blog.

At the moment not a huge amount happens to my location data, well at least not that I can see. Things are changing though and details of where you are when you use your laptop or mobile are becoming much more useful

I’ve already mentioned that Google have recently introduced optimised search suggestions based on location on both the iPhone and Android platforms. They’ve also been running their Latitude service since early 2009. Location data is already being used to help users navigate new spaces, aid them in finding nearby services, personalise weather reports, the list goes on. See wikipedia’s entry on location-based services for more details. There’s also a comprehensive look at geolocation apps on the Hawaii blog.

Use of location data is likely to be a big one at the Institutional Web Management workshop I chair. Last year we had a session on building an institutional geolocation service, this year there is an even keener interest in geolocation and mobiles.

So what’s the problem?

Last week the read-write web blog reported that John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology had said at a Congressional hearing on location data and privacy that:

The writing is on the wall that there will be baseline privacy legislation introduced. It will require location be treated as sensitive data, like medical data. You’ll need to do more than just post a disclosure statement.

The issue is that “many users are concerned about their location being exposed in ways they don’t control, and that have adverse impacts on their safety and freedom.

The read-write web blog argues however that “it is the culture of sharing by default that makes location-based services what they are.

The concerns are not new. Back in 2008 The Centre for Digital Democracy told the BBC that “while these services will be a powerful force in our lives they are a potential privacy nightmare.” This reaction was in response to the launch of Yahoo’s Fire Eagle which lets users manage information on where they are.

Again it’s the usual privacy versus transparency/sharing argument.

So some questions to consider…

  • Although there is probably an option to turn off location-services on devices are users always going to remember?
  • Are you happy for your location data to be shared?
  • Do you want your boss to know that you are in the pub during work time?
  • Do you want your colleagues to know that you’ve ended up in the police station?
  • What about if you are an estranged from your partner and don’t want them to be able to track you down?

It’s clear that there are lots of times when we want to keep our location to ourselves.

Back in 2003 J.E. Dobson and P.F. Fisher wrote an article for IEEE Technology and Society Magazine entitled Geoslavery in which they compare the use of Geographic information systems (GIS) technologies to George Orwell’s concept of big brother. The authors, both GIS experts, quote a colleague who said “Invent something dangerous enough, and screw it up badly enough, and you’ll have a job forever.

Much can be done with location data, and therein lies the rub….

What do people think? Will legislation prevent the rise of many location services?


One thought on “Where Exactly are You?

  1. Pingback: Cultural Heritage » Blog Archive » Elsewhere on UKOLN Blogs: March 2010

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