Well, that the issue would hit the headlines seemed to me quite unavoidable. Quite a few services now are proposed with geo-location, using built-in GPS to locate customers and/or friends, or just people one agrees to share their location with. The website “please rob me” offered an insight into the dark side of geo-location combined with social networking and/or business marketing. The not-privacy savvy person can inadvertently advertise to strangers that s/he is away from home after or while giving his home address.
Out of curiosity, I went to the Foursquare website, Foursquare providing geo-location features to facebook, twitter, Flickr users. And read their privacy policies. Two paragraphs are interesting:
“Please remember that if you choose to provide personal information using certain features of the Service, that information is governed by the privacy settings of those particular features and, unless selected otherwise, may be available to the wider Foursquare community or may be published on the Foursquare website, which is subject to indexing by third party search engines. Individuals reading this information may use or disclose it to other individuals or entities without our control and without your knowledge. Therefore, we urge you to think carefully about including any specific information you may deem private in Shouts or Tips or other user-inputted content that you create in the Service (location or otherwise).
While the Service does allow you to note your location at restaurants, bars, stores (and so) throughout your community, at no time does Foursquare ask you to provide your home address. You should be aware that if you or your friends add your home as a new venue in the Service database and that information is published on the Service (for example, via a user checking in to that home venue), that information may be published by third parties without our control.”
The first paragraph probably means that the minimum settings are that information is shared with the public, so one probably has to opt-in for privacy, rather than to opt-out. A bit like Facebook.
Second, the website warns that entering the home address as location, coupled with non-privacy features (if the user has not ensured that his info is not available to anybody), means that third-parties can communicate the stuff, i.e. the quidam and potential burglar will learn about X being at Restaurant Y while not being at home Z. A big disclaimer thus for Foursquare.
Lovely isnt’? now I think the issue makes the introduction of opt-out (one opts out of privacy settings) even more necessary. It also shows that privacy is primarily enforced by technology itself and that the law will have to intervene to force technology to comply with privacy rights.
‘Social networking: Too close for comfort”, The Independent, 16 June 2010
That said, geo-location is not in itself evil. Like all technological features, it has its good sides. See the Ushahidi platform and software that allows to collect real-time data and map it on a territorial map. It was used to help localise victims of Haiti earthquake, for example, as anyone can send a message via mobiles… What I find great is that this tool first has been developed by the opensource community (hence it is free and yet fully operational), and second upon the idea of Ory Okolloh from Kenya and South Africa after the 2007 elections in Kenya.
“Africa’s Gift to Silicon Valley: How to Track a Crisis“, NY Times, 12 March 2010