Cellphone tracking services: Friend finder or Big Brother?
Mobile location tracking lets you see where your friends are. But what about privacy?
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When it comes to safety, Loopt gives users control over when to reveal their location and who gets to see it. It also gives them the ability to alter or remove it at any time. While Loopt is built to let people meet up with friends who happen to be nearby, it has a public option in which users reveal their location to a broader group.Skip to next paragraph
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The intent of this option, called Loopt Mix, is to allow users to meet other service subscribers in real life.
Loopt advises caution when using this feature: “When meeting up with another Mix user, always meet in a public space with people around. Bring a friend or at least let a friend know where you're going.”
What happens if the service is abused? Altman says the community of Loopt users has proven to be a reliable watchdog. Several users suspected of illicit activity have been reported and kicked off the service, he says.
Services that keep tabs on your every move do seem a bit “creepy,” admits Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at CIS and an expert on electronic privacy issues. But, he says, while they could potentially lead to some criminal wrongdoing, he doesn't think “location based services are going to play into that dynamic.... [I]n the bulk of cases, this tool is going to be used by people who already have a relationship to augment that relationship.”
Some tracking services, for example, allow family members keep track of each other or parents to keep an eye on their children.
Much of what's driving the growth of mobile social networking or geo-locating services, says Mr. Calo, is the fact that "location data is really salient. It really matters to an individual to find things around them and really matters to advertisers to connect with people.”
Laws lag behind
Congress is taking interest in the growth in mobile tracking – and the growth in all sorts of data tracking that’s happening online – and what it means for consumer privacy. At a hearing on communication networks and consumer privacy last week, Loopt chief operating officer Brian Knapp was asked whether the federal government should begin regulating how companies use the private data collected by internet service providers and other companies that gather location information.
“A high-level privacy framework that sticks by tried-and-true principles would be beneficial,” Mr. Knapp told the House panel. But he added that he had concerns that laws could also get “focused on a snapshot in a moment in time and may get outdated.”
“The laws are always years behind technology, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “These location-tracking services have been available since about 2005 and the laws haven’t caught up with the technology.”
The most important thing, he says, is for new users to be fully informed of the potential consequences when they opt for mobile tracking services. But, “typically they aren’t.”