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Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In

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Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In
  Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In A publication of the ACLU of Northern CaliforniaAvailable online at !"#$"%&'("%)$* ,'%-#.""/."0*#"1%$."1-*,""2-$"%*."$*/  1Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In INTRODUCTION Location-based services (LBS)—applications that provide information to users based on their location—are a growing business. From social networking to navigation to banking, consumers are being offered a range of new location-based services. But every time a consumer uses one of these services, there is a risk that the company offering the service may be collecting and retaining detailed records of who she is, where she goes, and what she does. Once collected, outdated privacy laws and varying corporate practices can leave this sensitive information vulnerable to access by the government and third parties. What are the privacy implications of LBS, and how can businesses, policymakers, public interest groups, and consumers work together to update the laws and create stronger policies so that consumers can feel confident using these services? LBS are rapidly expanding in both number and variety. They offer a wide range of services: navigation tools to help you reach your destination (e.g., MapQuest); local search to help you find nearby businesses or events (e.g., Yelp); friend-finders and social networking (e.g., Loopt and Google Buzz); applications that allow you to “check in” at certain locations (e.g., foursquare); and applications that can link your location to other activities (e.g., Twitter and Facebook). Many users currently access LBS through mobile phones, but location-aware devices such as laptop and desktop computers, iPads, and in-car navigation and assistance systems can also be used to access many of these services.LBS offer tailored services that respond as you move from one place to another. But by using LBS, consumers may unknowingly allow companies to compile detailed profiles of their lives: the places they visit, the events they attend, the people they meet, and more. And if LBS assemble these consumer profiles, other parties—especially the government—may be eager to access this sensitive personal information. Americans should not be forced to choose between using new technology and keeping control of the private details of their lives. Instead, they have the right to expect that new technologies will improve their lives without invading their privacy.Unfortunately, legal protections have not kept pace with technological change. Constitutional privacy protections have yet to account for the fact that LBS are capable of generating detailed records that may reveal intimate and personal facts about a person’s life, facts that are rightly considered private. Existing privacy statutes were written decades ago, before LBS even existed. And many LBS privacy policies do more to protect company interests than to safeguard consumer privacy. As a result, the privacy protection for information collected, held, and shared by LBS providers is often inadequate or uncertain. As LBS become more popular and more central to the way Americans interact with technology and with each other, ensuring that there are strong and clear protections for the information they collect will be essential to building consumer trust, ensuring the long-term success of LBS, and protecting privacy.  2Online at Part I of this paper provides background information on LBS and the information that they collect and use. Part II examines the privacy concerns that arise from this collection. Part III surveys the current state of privacy protections for information held by LBS providers. Finally, Part IV identifies opportunities for consumers, businesses, and policymakers to work together to reinforce privacy protections for location information so that individuals are not forced to choose between using new LBS and keeping control of their personal information.In several areas of this paper we have more questions than answers. It is our hope that this issue paper will help to support a robust conversation between companies, policymakers, public interest groups, and consumers about these important issues and encourage efforts to update and develop more robust legal and practical privacy protections for information held by location-based services. PART I: UNDERSTANDING LOCATION-BASED SERVICES  You do not have to own a smartphone to find yourself using LBS on a regular basis. If you have ever received a live traffic update from your navigation device or even searched for “pizza” on a search engine, you have probably used a location-based service. For purposes of this paper, a location-based service is any application or service that receives a consumer’s location and provides that consumer with information or services tailored to that location. 1  LBS provide a wide range of services and run on a variety of platforms. Many of these LBS are able to collect and retain detailed records of the location of consumers and combine these records with other information to build profiles revealing the details of consumers’ personal lives. As the actual and potential markets for LBS grow, so too does the need to address the implications for consumer privacy.LBS provide a wide range of services and run on many different devices. Most consumers with a smartphone have access to a variety of LBS: navigation tools such as MapQuest or Google Maps provide driving directions and real-time traffic information, social networking applications like Loopt notify consumers when their friends are nearby, and foursquare and Gowalla let consumers “check in” at specific locations. But consumers may also use LBS when they use a search engine on their personal computer (some search engines generate advertisements and display results based on approximate location), 2  or when an in-car navigation system provides live traffic updates. LBS are also used for myriad other purposes such as campus safety, 3  education, 4  financial management, 5  and dating. 6  Some LBS such as “Future Checkin” and Booyah’s “InCrowd” are even built on top of other LBS. 7  It is likely that even more varieties of LBS are on the horizon.
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