We recently chatted with Facebook and Privacy International to weigh up the values and risks of location-based services. They’re all the rage at the moment, but is there a danger in sharing your location online?
We’ve talked about location-based services before on Which? Convo. In case they’ve passed you by, they let you send your exact real-world location to your friends via a GPS-enabled smartphone.
Alice Bucheler described them well in a previous Conversation, ‘your online footprints can now be a perfect replication of your real world movements.’
Why would you want to do this? Well it’s not only useful for organising a social event, but there’s no chance of losing your mates in town again.
Are there risks in sharing your location?
Privacy advocates see big risks in sharing your location online, no matter how attractive it might be. We recently got together with a bunch of online privacy experts and put location-based services on the agenda. Alexander Hanff of Privacy International had this to say about the risks of geolocation:
‘Everyone seems to want to share their location. There are inherent risks in doing so – young adults going out to social events put themselves at risk by letting potential predators know where they are.
‘I have no doubts whatsoever that at some point in the future we’re going to see situations of rape, muggings, assault and other sinister and very serious crimes resulting from sharing of location.’
These risks have been warned by insurer Legal & General, which has claimed that burglars are now befriending people on social networking sites to find out where they live through status updates. The insurer adds that sharing your location online is the same as talking out loud down the pub. But is this actually the case?
Facebook’s European director of policy, Richard Allan, had these words of clarification for Facebook’s location service:
‘Our Facebook Places service is typically available to friends only. So there is this idea that using the service puts you at risk of being burgled, but this would only be true if your friends are likely to rob you! Your friends might see that you are out and come round to your house, but if they’re not your friend on Facebook there’s no way for them to see the data.’
So, there’s a word of advice – if you’re using a service like Facebook Places, think twice about who you’re broadcasting too. It sounds obvious, but do you actually know who you’re friends with on the internet?
Are online footprints a good idea?
Even beyond this though, is sharing your location online actually a good idea at all?
‘Everybody thinks it’s wonderful to be able to tell people where they are. They’re not being correctly informed of the risks that they’re placing themselves under when they do this,’ Alexander Hanff argued. ‘There are potential good uses, but to leave these things on all the time does create these risks. So if you’re not going to use it for deliberate purposes, simply turn it off.’
But Facebook’s Richard Allan was keen to point out the differences between the many location-based services out there:
‘It’s really important to understand that there are two types of geolocation services – there are tracking services and check-in services. With a tracking service it’s absolutely correct that you may not want to leave it on for privacy reasons, since if you don’t turn it off, your location is stored all the time. With check-in services no location data is recorded unless and until you do a check-in. Facebook Places is a check-in service.’
‘Again the myth has gone round a little bit saying “Facebook Places means Facebook knows where you are all the time” – this is not true. We don’t know where you are at any point unless and until you pull the device out and go “I would like to check into the Which? office” for example.’
Do you think that the risks are too great with sharing your exact location online? Or do you think the technology could surmount these dangers?