The "Double-Edged Sword" of Location-Based Services

It sure seems to me that everywhere I turn of late, I am being greeted with either a new service offering to enhance my life by providing my precise geo-location to a retailer or inserting my data into one of the many location-based services* available to collate my whereabouts and analyze my behavior. How about you? Are you appending your geo-coordinates or location to each social network update you are creating, be it on Twitter, Facebook, SkyRock, Sonico, Qzone or the like? If so, please read the FAQ within the service and understand how you can opt-in or opt-out. This applies to your devices as well; understand how to turn on and off the geo-location of your device. These actions will ensure you are knowingly opting into the service as opposed to being defaulted into having your location shared broadly.

I see the use of location-based services as both reasonable and worrisome. I shall not try to touch on every possible permutation, but will share my thoughts on a couple of areas with the hope that it will stimulate discussion for both the implementation side of the equation as well as the individual user's perspective.

Vehicular Mode

Reasonable: If I am driving my car and I have an accident and am incapacitated, I think having my automobile sensors note the vehicle has been in an accident followed by an automatically generated transmission is an excellent use of a location-based service. I want help to come to me when I need it most, especially if I am unable to request it myself. Similarly, automated location updates would provide meaningful information about traffic congestion and suggest alternative routes. I'm also comfortable with the ability to request suggestions for services in an "on-demand," rather than "push" scenario.

Worrisome: My onboard global positioning device automatically transmits my vehicle identification, user data, vehicular data and specific location. That data is cataloged, aggregated and availed to third parties that may include my insurance company, vehicle warranty service, civil authorities or criminals. The insurance company may wish to know my driving habits and whether or not I am operating the vehicle in a safe manner; the vehicle warranty service is monitoring for the state of health of my vehicle and whether or not I am maintaining the vehicle properly; the civil authorities may want to determine if I'm operating the vehicle safely or what roads I'm using; and the criminal is positioning my whereabouts, which may put at risk an alternate location. Example: An individual embarks on travel using a limited-access road. Once on said road, a third party with data access is able compare current data with prior data (aggregated) and deduce that the individual is going to work.

Personal Devices

Reasonable: My handheld device generates, without user data, a presence signal using technological determination, or I have the option to declare myself present at a given locale using "check-in" processes. Vendors can share with me their opportunities in provision of services; public utilities can update with any large-scale events, which may be of interest based on a given profile. My experience is uplifted; my opportunity to engage with retailers with whom I may not have knowledge enhanced. My presence is not available for collation beyond technological confirmation of delivery of the "advertised" inducement, and until I opt to use the "coupon" my presence remains in an unknown state.

Worrisome: These devices transmitting personally identifiable data can place the user at unexpected risk. If this is not sufficiently worrisome, "check-in" services, which provide inducement in exchange for declaring one's presence, can pinpoint your device and the available data could be used in a variety of ways. Say you are visiting a local establishment that serves alcohol; you check-in Monday through Friday and your information is collated by your life/health insurance company. Will you have the opportunity to note you were the designated driver? Or will assumptions based on broader norms be made and your rates increase based on where you have been?

Alternatively, your dependent children may declare themselves present in location after location on a regular basis. Sad as it is, there are those who prey on our children by surfing and harvesting information from within chat-rooms and other online engagements. With the inducement of check-in or freewheeling data declaration, this can be used to the detriment of your family.


As indicated above, the good is easily understood; the worrisome perhaps not so much. A recent opinion out of the European Union suggests that having data cataloged, aggregated, and availed to others requires "informed consent." From my seat, I think informed consent is a minimal requirement. I also think that we should have a starting position that is clear: The individual owns their data and thus only the individual may determine if their information may be availed. I am also of the opinion that technological devices, such as smart-phones, must begin with the location-based integration set to "opt-out" and a change in state requires an unambiguous instruction to "opt-in."

I urge you to make sure you know what you're sharing, how it is being used, stored, and aggregated. It's your privacy, protect it. Minimally, I suggest you thoroughly understand the level of data you are sharing with any of the location based services within the context of who, what, where and when that data will be shared and who the data is being shared with.

The technology will continue to evolve. With that evolution, we will continue to experience the presence of the "double-edged sword" of location-based services.

*Location-based Service - My working definition is the ability to identify the geographical position of a device or person and collate those with a separate device, person or business.