Location and Privacy


Do I want the whole world to know where I am at any given moment? Probably not, and yet that is the only option I'm given with the new Twitter geolocation implementation. Unless my Twitter feed is protected (which sort of defeats its purpose), tweeting my location will let the entire world know where I am at any given moment, and where I've been in the past.

Google Latitude is a little better, in that you have to "opt in" to share your location only with friends you trust, but the moment you open the latitude application, your location is constantly updating. I think these services are going about it the wrong way. And some (or maybe a lot of) people feel that they're just plain creepy.

Sure, we live in a culture that is increasingly nonchalant about posting their intimate information for the world to see. Facebook, which was traditionally one of the more privacy-focused social networks, recently announced changes that would open more of its users' data to the internet at large. And Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, recently said that social norms are changing, and, essentially, the age of privacy is over.

But sharing photos and status updates on Facebook is very different from sharing your location with the world. Last night I tested out Twitter's geolocation using TweetDeck's new geotagging feature. I quickly realized that my tweet showed the exact location of my apartment, something I'm not exactly ready to share with the entire internet. I deleted the tweet right away.

So what's the way forward? Foursquare's model is pretty good, in that you have to check-in to a place (opt-in) in order to broadcast your location. And by default you broadcast it only to those people you've friended on the service. It's up to you, then, not to friend too many people as you might do on Facebook or Twitter. Unfortunately it also gives you the option to blast out your check-in on Twitter, which puts us back to square one. On the other hand, most people use Foursquare to let their friends know what restaurant or bar they're currently at, which is certainly less risky than broadcasting where you live.

But I think there are some ways we can improve things. For one, these services should allow you to narrow your broadcasts to only certain groups of followers / friends. Let me tag my friends as "inner circle," "good friends," and "acquaintances." Then let me choose to whom to broadcast my location every time I do a check-in. That way I have a bit more granular control of my privacy then simply "on" or "off."

It's also possible that location-based services may end up only being used for certain kinds of things--things where I'm not as worried about giving my location out to others. This post on Broadstuff points to three types of services that are likely to work in this regard:

  • Vendors who disclose their locations to all and sundry, and allow anonymised checking by users against their own locations (like websites do now). Having to give away identity will create a barrier.
  • Person/s to Person/s services that are "equal" in status and can be turned on and off at will (or at least the person can go off-radar)
  • Open Disclosure...for limited functions (not particulalrly personal) and periods of time, where the benefits of collaborating with others outweigh the benefits of disclosure

What do you think? Is the age of privacy really over? Or is there a dividing line here between services where privacy isn't much of an issue (Facebook) and those where it is (Foursquare)?

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