/ Technology

Is sharing your location online a dangerous folly?

Business man using laptop in lilo

Geolocation – tech buzzword of the year. Location sharing services are on the rise, with Facebook and others in on the action. But are we in danger of giving away too much information about our whereabouts online?

In a nutshell, geolocation apps let people with GPS-enabled smartphones share their location with friends and make links with real world locations.

The growth of these apps has been driven by the increased demand for information on the go as well as the demand for more localised information.

With location services like FourSquare surpassing four million users worldwide and having “check-ins” as far afield as the North Pole, it’s clear that geolocation is yet another step in merging our digital and offline worlds. Your online footprints can now be a perfect replication of your real world movements.

The benefits of location-aware services

Most of these geolocation apps are no doubt handy. Marco Polo lets you easily find your friends in packed venues, while Aisle 411 will help shoppers locate items within a store. Gone are the days when you’ll actually have to ask for directions!

For local businesses the apps also provide a new tool for marketing and engaging with new customers. By “checking in” to certain locations, users can earn special offers and discounts at participating venues.

But is there a sinister side to these services? A recent study of 30 Google Android apps found that half shared location data with third party advertisers without consent from users. Which raises the question – if you’re using geolocation apps, who else knows where you are?

You don’t need fancy tech to give away your location

Still, you don’t even need complex technology to give away your location – simply updating your Facebook status can say where you are, thus making it clear where you are not.

So, while most apps and social networking sites let users adjust their privacy settings, the possibility that someone may be following your updates with sinister intentions is always real.

Privacy advocates set up PleaseRobMe.com and used location-based tweets to highlight the potential dangers of broadcasting your location. The site appears to have given a taste of what’s to come, since police in New Hampshire have linked a recent spate of burglaries with Facebook status updates.

Plus, some insurance companies have recently warned that people who give away too much location information could face a rise in insurance premiums.

Pick your audience wisely

If you do choose to broadcast your location, then make sure to keep a close eye on your privacy settings. In our Conversation on Facebook Places, commenter Stevegs warned others over sharing their location, ‘I’ve always maintained that giving [a social networking website] anything other than false information is the best way to get your identity stolen – that’s why I wouldn’t touch any part of it with a barge pole!’

However, many of the geolocation apps and social networks out there do let you specify who you broadcast to – so think twice before broadcasting the fact that you’re not home!

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 November 2010

This is another reason to make me glad I deleted my Facebook account and why I won’t join any other “social” networking sites (even if the competition on this very website is only open to twitterers – unfair). Thank you for the warning.

This goes back to advising people a long time ago not to record on their answer phone at home things such as, “I’m not a home, please leave a message”. The technology may have evolved or changed, but the message remains similar. And walls now have eyes as well as ears.

Chris says:
14 November 2010

Yes there are risks, but nothing that the tech cant surmount & the benefits are high if the app can do the right stuff – i think it could be a game changer same as facebook: that one is “historic friends”. Whats that wrong with “live friends”?