The problem with the rise of popular, current location services (part 1)

Heard of Foursquare or Twitter? What about Facebook? Well these popular services have at least one thing in common right now: geo-location. So let’s start with the basics, what does geo-location mean? The term geo-location simply refers to the fact that a device knows your location, generally with your permission. This device may be a physical GPS system that you may have for your car, but more recently, geo-location is being built into web browsers and mobile devices.

How does geo-location work?

Your location may be pulled several ways from your devices: cell tower triangulation, wifi triangulation, or using global positioning satellite (GPS) signals. The signal strength and accuracy increases slightly in that same order, but there are certainly exceptions. For instance, you cannot receive a GPS signal when you are indoors (why? – coming soon), so when you’re inside, wifi signals can give you a more accurate result than cell tower triangulation.

Of the devices that currently implement geo-location, mobile phones are an optimal choice because they have one of the highest degrees of variety and effectiveness as they can access location from any of the three sources listed above. Something like a typical computer can only support wifi triangulation. Standalone GPS systems are exactly that: they work for location, but they don’t have many features, most can’t share location, and you don’t happen to carry it around all of the time like most people do with their cell phones.

If you want to read more about how each of these technologies work, read our post here (coming soon).

So what can you use geo-location for?

Geo-location isn’t new, but some of the ways the technology is being used are. So why would web applications start to use geo-location? Well it actually turns out that you can do a lot of cool things when an application knows your location. They can offer you discounts for stores that may be really close to you, you can find out where your friends are so you can meet up with them, you can attach locations to the pictures you take, you can even discover where your children are. This application of geo-location to a website is generally referred to as a “check-in” service. As cool as these services may be, it’s very critical that these services are opt-in (not opt-out). If the two are switched, you can easily be inundated with unsolicited ads and your privacy can be at risk.

What is required to use a check-in service?

Given the proper hardware, normally these applications only require you to have an account and to login, then they can start pulling locations at will. Most applications require you to be over 13 years old to use their service (typically for legal reasonsnamely COPPA).

So how popular are these services?

These services are all extremely popular. Facebook has 550 million members, if 10% started using “Facebook Places”, that would be 55 million people using it. Twitter has 20 million members and Foursquare has 1.5 million. We are going to talk about these services as well as the others that are available and explain exactly what they do towards the end of the post.

This sounds great, what’s the problem?

The trouble lies in the privacy of your data, in particular the information that tells someone where you are or, equally important, where you are not: home. This problem is so widespread that a website was formed called Please Rob Me; this service took  publicly available information from Foursquare and Twitter to tell everyone exactly when someone was not home (perfect time to rob a house). The site got a lot of media attention and felt it made its point so they shut down the service.

This all happened before Facebook released their geo-location product: Places. Well check this article out: burglars were caught by police but only after they had broken into dozens of homes in New Hampshire and stolen over $100,000 of goods. And how did they do this? In some cases, they used services like Facebook to see who wasn’t home.

The problems become even more evident when children start to use the service. Although most popular services are not built with the intent to be specifically for family monitoring, you can use them for this. The problem is, so can everyone else. Criminals are opportunists. Criminals can see when a child is home alone, or when a child is away from their parents. Bullies can see the same thing. I can’t emphasize enough how important this point is.

Perhaps the worst part about all of this, as pointed out by Larry Magid, is that the newest services, like Facebook Places, let people “tag” other friends that are with them at the same location. Therefore, even if you don’t use the service yourself, your private location information can still be available online. Facebook has come under a lot of scrutiny for this fact, but they’ve only really gone as far as to give a warning that users should not “tag” without permission. They still allow the process to happen.

Next post we will take a look at specific services that are available and discuss their pros and cons, take a look at the necessary hardware to use these services, and make some suggestions for improving the safety of these services as well as some things that may make them even more appealing to families.