Monday’s Musings: Why I’m Unplugging From Location Based Services Until The Privacy Issue Is Resolved

Published on January 17, 2011 by R "Ray" Wang

Convergence Of Smart Phone Affordability And Broad Network Access Drives Growth In Location Based Services

I’ve been a big fan of location based services (LBS).  In fact, many of you have followed my whereabouts on Yelp, Tripit, and other integrated Twitter services.  As many of you know, location based services take your geographical position from your mobile device and deliver relevant information services based on your relationship to people, objects, places, etc.  In the 2010 Pew Research Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, surveys showed, 4% of Americans utilized Location Based Services (LBS) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Layar’s Augmented Reality location based service (LBS).

Layar - Augmented Reality and Location Based Services

Constellation Research, Inc. estimates these services to grow and generate up to $10.7B in revenue by 2013.  Among the early adopter set, LBS is on fire.  Among the general population, growth will most likely trend with smartphone adoption, which market research firm IDC estimates a 55% growth from 2009 to 2010 (~270 million units).  You do the math!

As one of those early adopters, I and many others have enjoyed LBS from a consumer tech point of view to:

  • Navigate around places.  Use turn by turn navigation and traffic maps through services such as Google Navigation and Yahoo! Maps.
  • Identify events to attend. See where my friends are by date and location to make time to catch up using Loopt, Rummble, and Tripit.
  • Locate friends near me.  Catch up with people near me using Foursquare and Gowalla as a matter of convenience.  In some cases, track people by mobile device location.
  • Reduce traffic fines. Warn and be warned where speed traps, sobriety check points, and cameras through crowdsourcing apps such as Trapster and Phantom Alert
  • Find places to eat.  Follow foodie friends to see where they check in on Yelp.
  • Receive offers from merchants. Get rewarded for checking in to locations with discounts from merchants.  Take advantage of M-commerce (mobile).

We’ve also helped many of our enterprise clients use LBS for business scenarios such as:

  • Finding people. Skill levels, experience, interests are key attributes. Imagine a nearby emergency scene that requires a Portugese speaking medic within 5 miles.
  • Finding things. Parking spaces, meeting rooms, stolen phones are key examples.  Imagine the need to optimize parking space management, finding empty conference rooms, etc.
  • Tracking resources.  Passive sensors can locate objects with AutoID devices, RF Tags, and other signals.  Imagine tracking of truck fleets, taxis, doctors, service people, equipment, etc.
  • Notifying people and objects. Both a push and pull model can be used to match needs.  Imagine automated check-ins, targeted advertising, safety warnings, automated payments, etc.

Net:net there are some great benefits at hand as the convergence of mobile, analytics, social, and cloud will create new profit pools in value added services and more personalized stakeholder experiences.

Yet, Privacy Polices And User Control Of Personal Information Remains The Key Issue Why I Quit

Despite the great convenience and benefits, there are many risks to publicly sharing your location information.  Frederic Lardinous at Read Write Web talked about the dangers of being robbed through location based social networks via sites such as Please Rob Me.  In April 2010, Melissa Jun Rowley posted on LalaWag about “FourScare and FourScammed”. Meanwhile, Michelle Greer at Silicon Angle brings up good points on legal rights with geo-location services.  In fact, I caught my neighbor stealing my paper a month ago.  I tweeted I was somewhere else and he promptly came by to remove the goods only to be surprised as I opened my front door.

Now that’s not the reason I’ve resolved to stop using these services in 2011.  In fact, there are three key reasons I don’t feel like helping to recreate The Matrix:

  1. Lack of control of my personal information. While a few sites have good granular controls for where and how I share information (e.g. EchoEcho, Loopt and BrightKite), most app providers lack key features such as permission based requests, easy to use security interfaces, and granular blocked lists for groups and individuals.
  2. Minimal awareness on who’s using my information. Too many people have access to my personal information.  Just believing that a third party won’t resell or leak my information is not good enough.  These third parties often do not seek your explicit consent.
  3. Non-existent adoption of industry privacy standards. Even though the wireless association CTIA has put out best practices and guidelines, few LBS providers have adopted all the standards.  After all, these are voluntary and lack teeth until adopted by the FCC.  Orthogonally, the Web Analytics Association’s Code of Ethics still needs to gain broader adoption.

The Bottom Line: Enterprises and Individuals Must Demand Locational Privacy Rights

Call me a Luddite or old fashioned but we shouldn’t give up yet on the privacy debate.  Just because Mark Zuckerberg and some others feel that age of privacy is over, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put up a fight.  We really don’t want to take away our locational privacy rights.   These are serious rights we are giving up for simple conveniences.

LBS is in it’s infancy.  We still have time to make sure our fundamental locational privacy rights are in place.  Apps providers, carriers, and other location based service and solution providers should quickly agree on end user privacy standards.  Yes, one may argue that you are providing a free service, but is it really free when you are selling our information?

We must have strong advocates to protect our privacy given the fast pace of disruptive technology adoption.  We must act soon.  There are two types of privacy that must be protected.

  1. Individual subscriber level. We need to control who, what, when, why, and how location data is used by an application and by third parties.  Opt-in should be the norm, not opt-out.  If you want to pay for my location, then be explicit.  Let me know when something is turned on.  Show transparency in how this information is being used.
  2. Enterprise corporate level. As part of an organization, we may lose our individual rights, but that doesn’t mean the corporation doesn’t want to mask where their employees or resources may be deployed.  In the middle of a merger, would you want to give away where two merger teams would be meeting?  If you are about to launch a new product or service, would you want certain competitors to know where key equipment would be placed?  No one wants misuse in location based information so enterprises should ensure that their corporate polices match with their location based providers.

There’s one more thing – I bet you the VC’s will start funding services that will protect and hide our identity again!

Recommendations:  For Those Braver Than I, Follow These Best Practices
Here are a few best practices I recommend to friends who are all in for location based services:
  1. Run a search on yourself. Use your favorite search engine to see what networks are exposed.  A quick check will show you what pictures, what locations, what information has been shared.  You can’t change the past, but you can stop the future.  If you want to confuse people, start checking into random places that make no sense, create few patterns, and hopefully confuse the algorithms that marketers and governments may use in the future.
  2. Default your location based services to disable. Many services automatically leave geotagging in “On” mode.  The settings should be set to opt-in as opposed to opt-out.  Keep track of privacy settings as some mega offenders such as Facebook go with opt-out not opt-in as the default.
  3. Get choosy about who’s in your social networks.  I am actually on Facebook.  But only those who I’d invite to my home to stay the night are on the list.  As you build out your social networks, be careful who you include in groups.  It’s more cumbersome to worry about what’s shared than keep a good list of who’s in or out.  Why not just include those that matter and leave it as such.  Another option, keep networks purpose built.  For example, I use LinkedIn for work, Yelp for foodie acquaintances, and Facebook for close friends.   We use a closed network at work and that keeps confidential information, well confidential.
  4. Understand that everything you do is on the record. As private as you may hope, nothing is fully private.  Think about what you post could be used against you in public.  Tying your home address with your kids school information with when you leave the house can be a recipe for disaster.  If you are going on vacation, don’t tweet from the destination as everyone will know you are out.
  5. Check in after the fact.   If you are avoiding stalkers or feel vulnerable, don’t check in before you arrive.  Those following could use that as an opportunity to confront you or engage you when you least expect it.  Better yet, don’t check in if you are worried.
  6. Donate to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). There are lots of organizations fighting the fight.  I’ve only listed one I just contributed to today.  Because locational privacy continues to be attacked by the rapid development of disruptive technologies, we need policies that not only protect us from the dangers, but also help us gain the benefits.  If you are in alignment with this point of view, donate here.

Your POV.

Have you used LBS?  Are you using it more or less in 2011?  Do you feel that the age of privacy is over? Add your comments to the blog or send us a comment at r (at) softwareinsider (dot) org or info (at) ConstellationRG (dot) com.

Please let us know if you need help with your business strategy in 2011. Here’s how we can help:

  • Disruptive technologies. Assessing the market for social, mobile, cloud, analytics, UC, and internet of things. Providing vendor selection frameworks. Comparing vendor capabilities. Negotiating vendor contracts. Providing independent validation and verification.
  • Next gen business models. Advising management teams and organizations on disruptive technology adoption leading practices. Designing next gen business models in Social CRM, digital marketing transformation, cloud adoption. social business, virtual commerce strategies, business process innovations, and cloud services.
  • Legacy optimization. Reviewing existing technology strategies for cost savings. Renegotiating existing maintenance contracts. Providing go forward optimization plans.

Related Resources

October 29, 2010 Australian Communications and Media Authority “Online Social Networking – Location Based Services”

March 23, 2010   CTIA – “Best Practices And Guidelines For Location Based Services”

February 25, 2010  Electronic Privacy Information Center – “Locational Privacy”

August 2009  Electronic Frontier Foundation – Andrew J. Blumberg and Peter Eckersley “On Locational Privacy and How to Avoid Losing It Forever”

May 13, 2008 O’Reilly: Where 2.0 – Sam Altman “Best Practices for Location-based Services: Privacy, User Control, Carrier Relations, Advertising & More”

Location Based Services Privacy Policies

Here’s a good list of some corporate policies that are in place.  If you’d like to build one with us, let us know as we have a few templates we can put to use.


Reprints can be purchased through Constellation Research, Inc. To request official reprints in PDF format, please contact


Although we work closely with many mega software vendors, we want you to trust us. For the full disclosure policy, stay tuned for the full client list on the Constellation Research website.

Copyright © 2011 R Wang and Insider Associates, LLC All rights reserved.

  • […] any locator type program like foursquare as creepy and unneeded even before I read articles like this. Investigating on Need I figure out what I need to do before searching out the app. I don’t find […]

  • Good summary, thank you!
    To make use of LBS without the known side effects to privacy you stated, we decided to start Whapee.

    The platform is built to take geotagged live photos (currently from free iPhone app only) accompanied by short messages.

    To save privacy while still located, the service

    1. is running anonymously
    2. is running account free
    3. all data is deleted frequently
    4. all data is kept from spiders and robots

    Policy is here:

    The frequent deletion of the images should avoid the possibility of collecting ‘inner views’ of a specific location.

    Would you give this a try?

  • Leslie – good points on the rules. the issue is many of us have forgotten what we’ve given up in the name of convenience. – Ray

  • Hi,

    An excellent article that ‘ll be using as a reference on how to do LBS correctly. Thanks.

    I do, however, disagree on the privacy issue. Each service mentioned above requires explicit permission to be granted to participate. The hard reality is that we live in a connected world and are leaving a constant stream of digital footprints. Common sense should prevail when connecting, granting permission or engaging with the online channel in exactly the same manner as in the physical world. You wouldn’t meet a random stranger down a dark alley normally, and neither should you do this online.

    Our personal details and addresses have been sold to marketing companies, disguised as demographics, for decades. All that’s changed is it’s been done much more efficiently, on a larger scale and more publicly now.

    The rules are simple – don’t do anything online that you wouldn’t do offline and you’re generally safe.

  • Mike – it’s true you don’t have to check-in, but I’m not sure how that addresses how 3rd parties can use my info. What do others think? – Ray

  • Really good points on the need for greater privacy controls. In my personal life, I have created a notion of “concentric rings” of networks. Foursquare is my smallest and tightest network of friends. I only let those in who I would actually trust to know where I am. I only share LBS info with other networks if the check-in is VERY meaningful to me and has little risk in sharing. As you do, I often check in as I am leaving a place.

  • Phil – social norms have indeed changed. however, the way governments and criminals use personal information has not. I hope peer influencers do step up the debate and warn those who are more trusting. What do others think? Have norms changed and can we be more trusting or should we keep the same precautions? – Ray

  • Hi Ray,
    Good note. A key challenge is 18 and 19 year old users of social media and LBS.
    Without trying to stereotype, they are less likely to think about the consequences of social media actions from LBS to putting perhaps inappropriate photos on FB.
    Perhaps as an industry/society we need to make sure we can have peer influencers from within their various social groups show leadership and seed an awareness and action on how to use the tools appropriately.

  • Peter – good points. this is a tough issue. We are already giving up too much info but we do have to balance the opt-in requirements vs fraud vs commercial interests. What do others think? Will there be new services that protect our identity? – Ray

  • Let preface by saying that I thought it was a good article. A couple of comments/thoughts:

    1.Privacy is an interesting one when it comes to the overall “social” space. I dont know if its because I am Canadian (this may also happen in the US) but I had to use social insurance information to secure hydro/telephone or a credit check to get approval for renting an apartment. So, any pretense of privacy is out. I guess the alternative to free LBS is paying for it but companies still get to use the valuable info.

    The LBS privacy debate is a tough one because I see a lot of benefits to both consumer and business on this one.

    I do think we’ll see some conservative practices come into play via common sense. I thought your comment on purpose re: how we use diff social media channels was spot on.

    Simply put – most people I know that are maintaining their privacy dont pro-actively participate in the “social” space or they keep the message to a tight script.

    **discl: my own comments and not those of msft(contract)

  • Naomi – yes. there’s a safety issue here. we should get the balance right as well as protect our locational privacy rights. – Ray

  • Alan – Good point. I use Facebook for my close friends who I’d invite to spend the night or attend your wedding. We use linked in for work, and Twitter for any interested party. It’s a basic role based security model that reflects our social groups. There are other models. I’m curious as to what others do? – Ray

  • Ray, this is a wonderful decision on your part and a thoughtful presentation of the issues that have kept me well clear of LBS. I agree on the benefits, and I look forward to a day when they can be achieved without the very unpleasant side effects. What I’d really like to do is shake Zuckerberg until his teeth rattle in time with his prattle about privacy being an outdated cultural norm. He’ll be rich enough to get his own children body guards, but what about all the other children being put at risk by their parents’ pasting their pictures/ages/schools/whereabouts all over the social tech world. And what about the trail so many people are leaving that will be used against them in a divorce, child custody hearing, estate resolution, public service election, and the list goes on. Not to mention what the IRS must be doing with all this publicly available information on the snazzy cars owned by folks whose returns don’t show enough income to afford them. Two of my earliest blog posts were about my digital immigrant wanderings in the world of social tech, and I thought some of your readers might enjoy them. Let’s keep this conversation going in hopes of getting this one right. LBS are a tremendous opportunity if we can just work out the kinks before all our homes are robbed robbed while on vacation.

  • Ray,

    As social media finds its “level” some of the air is being let out of the initial excitement. For sites like FourSquare, I think the gamification was heightened in regard to competition for “Mayorships” and rewards rather then a desire to let people know where you were at a given time. This was driven home by some “Mayors” of some Canadian establishments who never left the Phillipines.

    Clearly social media has struck a chord in our collective psyche, but the honeymoon is just about over as people begin to take stock of issues of privacy and safety related to information they share.

    I recall you tweeted a while back about how you treat Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook. Something about inviting to dinner, your wedding etc. It was an excellent thought. Would love to see it again.

    -Alan Berkson

  • John – thanks for sharing. the pace of technology change is impacting policy faster than governments can adapt. Wonder what other citizens have done around the world to keep locational privacy secure? – Ray

  • I’m with you on this issue.

    Living in a small town – population about 5800, privacy has always been my first concern, both for myself, and for my family.

    Unfortunately, user privacy always seems to be the last thing on the horizon for all these location-based services.

    As a result, I seldom use them, and until there is a return to privacy saneness, I’m staying away.

  • Scott – Agreed. we need to collectively address this issues as users, individuals, and vendors. Lots to think about or thus we create an Owellian state. – Ray

  • The right to privacy is on par with the right to free speech – perhaps even more fundamental in some ways.

    If it’s done right, it has potential to significantly enhance our human experience.

    We need to continue to support privacy organizations such as the EFF to insure this has proper attention by our legislators.

    This is one too important to leave to the markets to sort out.

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