We are truly at a tipping point in the ubiquity of geolocation technologies.
Take the browser for instance. With the latest version of Firefox a developer can ask your permission to triangulate your location based on your IP address and the WiFi hotspot signals in your area. Calling out to Google’s Location Services, the browser returns a reasonably accurate location to the website. Other browsers are also working to support the Geolocation API specification — iPhone’s Safari, Opera, and Chrome using Gears. Think of the possibilities for a dynamic localized news feed in Everyblock or highly targeted advertising.
When every website is location aware, how does this impact privacy? Already, we are leaving a fairly large trail as we browse the web, but being able to connect to our location could be downright creepy. The ad might read: “Hi Jeremy, care to come across the street and buy some French fries?”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation released a whitepaper this month covering the issue of locational privacy. While I tend to think that EFF can be a bit overly cautious, they make some good points. A lot of services can be implemented without associating a particular user with a particular location — completely anonymous search, for instance.
There are definitely uses for user specific data. Take Loopt or Google Latitude, the entire point of the products are to publish your location to your friends. In this regard, I don’t want the developer to jump through hoops to allow my friend to know that I am close but not reveal my actual location — it’s sort of the point.
The concept of a continuously published stream of locations for a user is immensely powerful. Imagine if the iPhone would publish updated geo-location which was shared with applications that the user granted access. Loopt could let me know that my friend is nearby without me having to open the application to update my location. Zillow could pop up a notice that I’m walking by a house that is for sale that meets my requirements. This concept of a geo-augmented reality is quite powerful, but must be done correctly so that it isn’t abused.
It will be quite interesting to see how Twitter’s API updates to include geolocation will play out. I like the idea of using Twitter as a central location feed and having other services pull from it. I’m sure we are going to see some location based spam start appearing — remember the French fries I was offered?
I was reading an article about ESRI’s solutions to manage GPS data for parolees. Analyzing parolee movement is brilliant for parole officers to keep touch on what their parolees are up to. I’d love to see a good case study in how this impacts reincarceration rates.
Contrast that with the iPhone Offender Application that was in the news. Publishing home addresses of sex offenders is commonplace, but having extremely ready access to the data is not. How does a rehabilitated individual start fresh when i can look up the offenders on my block in 30 seconds? Imagine the ramifications if we started publishing tracking data for parolees. The more that you think about it the less that is different between these two scenarios, one just has more detailed data.
Yes, we are being followed more and more as geolocation becomes tied into the services we consume. Let’s just hope its all implemented securely. And, no, I don’t want any French fries.