Location-based services: an increasingly important privacy concern?

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Perhaps oddly some think location-based services are fun in a “stalkerish way”. But what if you’re actually subject to unwelcome scrutiny or observation, or feel your freedom of movement infringed? Data from social media networks Facebook and Foursquare were used by the ‘Girls Around Me’ app to allow users to view the location of women on a map, displaying publicly available data such as photos from their online profiles. Once journalists had picked up on the story, and cited serious privacy concerns, Foursquare quickly cut access to location data through the API to Girls Around Me’s developer. The Russian app developer, i-Free Innovations, notes its offering only serves up information already made public by social networks, so where’s the harm?

The less tech-savvy will have an increasingly difficult time understanding the impact of their use of social networks when combined with location-based services. Consider, for example, how many Foursquare users are aware of changes made to the service that allow their movements of the last two weeks to be tracked by friends?

Young people are increasingly turning to mobile apps that track location, presenting new challenges for their personal security. News that the social networking app Skout was allegedly used by adults to connect with unsuspecting children is a cautionary tale of the risks of using such networks to interact with strangers. While Skout has taken steps to improve security by introducing new safeguards to its service, questions remain as to how minors can best be protected online when using mobile devices and services.

The European Commission’s ‘Strategy for a Better Internet for Children‘ reflects an  understanding that society needs address these concerns. Children in Europe start using the Internet on average from the age of seven, and one in three go online via mobile phones, game consoles or other mobile devices. However, more must be done by stakeholders, particularly the developers of smartphone applications, to better understand the risks their offerings may present to young people – and properly consider and design in safeguards prior to launching new products.

Categories: EUI