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Privacy and Location-Based Services
Posted by Hank Nothhaft - 05/5-09 at 11.12

There's recently been much talk in the press and blogosphere of concerns related to the safety of location-based services. One article went so far as to label LBS a dangerous fad. I must take exception.

The potential of location-based services is far too great to be written off as merely a dangerous fad. We stand on the threshold of a new generation of services able to serve up hyper-contextualized and highly tailored content and recommendations in large part based on the awareness of location.

 Concerns of privacy and safety almost always arise in fervent opposition to any new social technology or services highly reliant upon user data. Take social networking for example. Certainly these concerns have some foundation. Both MySpace and Facebook have shown up in their fair share of regrettable headlines. Any medium that enables users to broadcast or store intimate details of their lives holds the potential for exploitation.

 It comes down to responsible use and intelligent choices by "we" the consumer. Of course it should be expected that any location-based service worthy of our attention ought to provide an ethical and straightforward privacy policy and a rich set of options and settings for protecting our information.

 At a minimum, location sharing should be allowed only on an opt-in basis-that is, two users must establish a "relationship" before any information is shared between them. The service should further enable users to flexibly safeguard their privacy by providing for the management of when, how much and with whom to share their information once a relationship is established. Perhaps you share your location to the street address with your mother, but only to the city level or not at all with a co-worker. Ultimately, however, it is incumbent upon the user to make wise, "safe" decisions when choosing to share personal data.

 In summary, good old-fashioned commonsense combined with rich native privacy settings ought to provide for a safe and enjoyable user experience, while paving the way for the next evolution of personalization made possible through the availability of contextual information, including location.

 

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