Tempest in a Mobile Phone: Protecting Your Geo-Privacy

The next great privacy tempest seems like a yawner: What will happen with the data gathered by social networking or personal information services that track where you and your friends are? Like with TV, if you don’t like what you’re gonna get, don’t get into it.

The next great privacy tempest seems like a yawner: What will happen with the data gathered by social networking or personal information services that track where you and your friends are? Like with TV, if you don’t like what you’re gonna get, don’t get into it. After all, it’s you who’s tapping a key to tell Google where you are (or let Google tell you, really) as you move about, via its My Location service on the iPhone and other devices. It’s you who signs up with Loopt to turn your phone into a “social compass,” showing you where all your friends are located and helping you meet up, along the way. And it’s basically the same with the Fire Eagle service, formally opened up to everyone last week by Yahoo. This aims to be a full-fledged platform for sharing users' location information among different web applications. Here’s a quick early list, from the Fire Eagle gallery of applications:


If you choose to use these types of geo-coded and place-tracking services, you have to reconcile yourself to the constant worry that whomever stores the data may at some point try to resell the data in a way and to a party you might not like. If you’re more comfortable “off the grid” than on, you can always elect to stay that way (until and unless a mobile phone service provider at some point starts collecting data from its GPS-enabled phones and fails to tell its customers that it is collecting information on their whereabouts without their knowledge). Given the popularity of services like Twitter, where people spend their days telling friends their thoughts and whereabouts in short bursts, and Facebook, where young (and old) pretty much lay out in much and graphic detail the events that make up their lives, these services are capitalizing as good capitalists should do on the needs and desires of a large part of a populace. If you don’t want people to know where you are, it’s up to you to maintain your privacy. Not Google or Loopt or FireEagle. This is perhaps obvious, but sometimes forgotten. Even when there’s a clear policy statement that tries to provide you comfort about how the data will be used, just get braced, for the worst. Go in with, almost literally, eyes wide open. Tell yourself: Whatever can be shared, probably will get shared. [Google, after all, has been known to censor itself, in front of the Chinese government and Yahoo has given up information about dissidents in that country, as well.] Once you brace yourself, then decide how you feel about signing up. This way, there are no surprises, should something happen. Because there isn’t anything much more personal to give out to anyone, friends or other parties, than where you are and at what time. Decide going in, how comfortable you are in in living more publicly, rather than less. After all, as we’ve seen before, everything is copasetic, until it’s not.

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