/ Technology

Facebook answers back on location-based services

3D illustration of cellular network over Europe map

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?

Fabien says:
16 December 2010

I don’t understand the point of check in services or wanting to tell the world where you currently are. As someone who uses Twitter daily, I had to remove someone that I was following because of this Foursquare app (or whatever the heck it is, I don’t keep up with this stuff) that apparently leaves a message every time you check in. I could practically map out the daily life of someone on Twitter due to these updates. They’re frequent and very annoying. If I want to tell someone where I am, I’ll let them know directly without pestering everyone else, much like how many people update their Twitter with meaningless daily tasks.

Check in services or not, I’m sure that if anyone wanted to use it to cause harm, they could. If someone forms a daily routine of visiting the same areas every morning or visiting the same stores often enough, one can easily track them down that way. But whatever, this seems to be the new social networking fad right now.

Pete Foster says:
19 December 2010

For small and growing businesses these location services have lots of advantages – for those brave enough to embrace them and adapt their processes to use them. Great to track sales teams too, as well as build some ‘customer engagement’ especially as more and more customers struggle with trusting companies – having sight into the way they people within the company they do business helps engender a closer tie.

I for one think this is an interesting area and it will grow, and will slowly creep into a lot more of all our lives : I genuinely don’t think it is something to be feared (not at this stage anyway)

The main problem is trust. Whilst you can protect yourself to a certain degree by not accepting friend requests from people you don’t know, how do you really know that someone is genuine. Someone could easily create a Facebook profile purporting to be someone you may know.

Also, how do we trust the many [mostly useless] applications on Facebook or the many [quite useful] location-based apps on smartphones? Who’s watching them? Don’t naively believe for one moment that Facebook or the mobile providers are or indeed if they care!

Having said that, I still think a burglar’s best chance is to roam the streets looking for unlit houses with no vehicles parked outside and plenty of shrubbery.

Google lost my trust when it launched Street View. Despite the initial hostile reaction, the invasion of privacy is now widely accepted. Facebook has come in for a lot of criticism but it has not been abandoned by users.

What is next? Should we share information about our bank balance? That would help our friends know who is worth inviting out for a meal.

Technological developments have tremendous potential, but we should think very carefully about the risks.

nicko says:
11 October 2011

Unfortunately this information is almost in the public Domain. The amount we paid for a dwelling (usually our biggest asset) is widely available on the internet http://www.ourproperty.co.uk/ . Information is gleaned from the Land Registry who seem to flaunt the Data protection act and put the value of probably one’s largest capital asset on view for anyone to see.