Feel Like You're Being Watched?
Protect your privacy by turning off location-based networking apps such as Foursquare and Gowalla, or don’t “check in.”
Tuesday, May 10, 2011
Location-based social networking applications such as Gowalla or Foursquare can make you feel like you’ve brought your friends and family along on one big, happy road trip. They know in which store you just spent that tax-refund check. They know where you went to eat, what movie you saw, and where you went for drinks afterward.
But who else is following the minutiae of your life? Digital location tracking can cause a range of analog problems, from thieves’ monitoring victims’ online statuses to ensure no one is home before breaking in, to supposed “friends” using your whereabouts against you: “You said you weren’t going out last night!”
The problem is not new. For months Facebook and Twitter have stripped posted photos of metadata—information that can reveal when and where the photo was taken. Yet Apple has recently raised new cause for concern: It turns out the iPhone OS 4 has been tracking its users’ locations without their consent—in some cases for nearly a year. In other words, with your smartphone in hand, a thief, private investigator, hacker or jilted lover could essentially follow your every step.
“He goes to the gym at this time. She goes to the coffee shop at that time. This really creates a complete picture of the individual in the world,” said Ondrej Krehel, IDT911 information security officer. “Not just where they go, but what their habits are, who they are.”
Beyond thievery, there could be social implications. Foursquare, which allows users to “check in” at places and events, keeps track of other attendees, giving friends a top-down view of who’s where. That guy or girl interested in meeting you? You’ve just offered them a map of your social landscape in the real world.
Location-tracking apps can make even the most tech-savvy users wary. Venture capitalist Brad Feld, an avid Foursquare user, said he got spooked when someone called the restaurant where he was eating lunch to say, “I know where you are,” and then hung up.
“I haven’t sorted this out yet, but as an early adopter—and a promiscuous one—of location-based check-in—I’m rethinking how I use this stuff and broadcast where I am,” Feld wrote on his blog Feld Thoughts.
The question you need to ask yourself when using these tools is: “When should I turn them on?”
“I’d feel awkward GPS-ing my whole day—where I shop, when I go to the bathroom. But in other avenues, while skiing or out hiking, it could be very helpful,” Krehel said. “I’d like to see a map of the route I skied, see how fast I went or look at my average speed. In that sense, your smartphone is replacing a $300 gizmo that does the same thing.”
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