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Location Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In

Nicole Ozer,
Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of Northern California
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November 16, 2010

Need to get directions when you are lost? Want to know if your friends are in the neighborhood? Location-based services—applications and websites that provide services based on your current location—can put this information and more in the palm of your hand. But navigating the complex web of privacy policies and settings for these services can be far more difficult.

That’s why the ACLU of Northern California has released Location Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In, a guide (PDF) outlining privacy considerations for mobile location-based services, and a side-by-side comparison of six popular social location-based services (Foursquare, Facebook Places, Yelp, Gowalla, Twitter and Loopt).

Location-based services can collect information about not only where we go but who we know, what we do, and who we are. If that information falls into the wrong hands, the consequences can range from embarrassing to chilling to downright dangerous. Robberies have been linked to location status updates and GPS technology already has been involved in a significant number of stalking cases (PDF).

And the government is increasingly interested in this information too. Recently, Michigan police demanded information about every mobile phone near the site of a planned labor union protest. In 2009, a Sprint employee revealed that law enforcement accessed location information about Sprint users more than 8 million times over a 13-month period.

You shouldn’t have to choose between using these services and losing control of your personal information. It’s time for consumers, companies, and Congress to work together to update the federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), which was passed in 1986, long before smartphones, Google, or Facebook existed. And location-based services can help make our personal information safer right now by:

  • Giving users control over who can check them in, who sees their check-ins, and how long check-ins are retained.
  • Fixing the app gap by giving users control over how third party applications can access their personal information.
  • Demanding a warrant before handing over users’ location information to the government.

So if you are checking out location-based services, check in with us on what they mean for your privacy, what LBS services are doing right, and what companies and lawmakers can do to better protect your personal information.

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