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Privacy in a location, location, location world

Randall Strauss’s piece Cellphone as Tracker: X Marks Your Doubts raises some uniquely American concerns about privacy and location based services.  The Helio Drift, with Buddy Beacon, which allows you to signal your location to up to 25 of your closest friends, and loopt on Boost Mobile, which lets you use GPS to map your location and your friends locations, both raise the spectre of unwanted, and privacy busting, surveillance by “friends” and businesses.

The key to making these services work, of course, is consent.  As Strauss notes:

… the potential of m-commerce could be realized only if consumers had ironclad assurance that, except in emergencies, the service provider would never use location information unless they expressly gave consent. The industry acknowledged that customers who received unsolicited ads keyed to their movements would have perfectly legitimate privacy concerns.

The US privacy environment is a shambles.  Privacy policies have no real legal standing, businesses routinely collect private information without consent or make it a condition of doing business, and once that information is collected, it is the property of the business owner. Enlightened privacy legislation would give teeth to privacy policies by:

  1. Requiring that businesses honour privacy policies to the letter like any other contract.
  2. Requiring that businesses disclose how they intend to use the data collected, and requiring that consumers be notified and permission given if the business intends to expand the scope of that data use.
  3. Giving ownership of the data collected to the user, not the business performing the collection.

Before consumers will part with information like location, they need assurances that it won’t be abused.

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Peter Cranstone November 21, 2006, 3:58 am

    I agree with your comments on privacy. We've solved the problem of how to stream GPS data over HTTP from a mobile phone. Realizing that privacy should be in the hands of the consumer and not the content provider we've made it opt-in. Now you can turn on the GPS and let someone know where you are i.e. for local search or social networking and then turn it of.

  • Alec November 21, 2006, 4:32 am

    I think you're taking the right steps, Peter. The next part of the puzzle that needs to be addressed is what the network operator does with the information that the user provides.

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