At first, GPS was just a way for us to get around — a way to direct us from point A to point B without getting lost. But somewhere along the way, smartphone manufacturers, app developers and entrepreneurs realized that it might be valuable to share that information with friends and family — where we are, where we’ve been, and where we’re going. And thus, location-based services were born.
Today, our location permeates most of the mobile apps and services we use on a daily basis. Instagram, for example, now uses the location data embedded in Android and iPhone photos to create a visual map of your adventures (which actually looks pretty neat if you travel a lot). Facebook, meanwhile, uses location data in posts to share what restaurants, movie theatres or parks you’ve visited — one of the social network’s many attempts to turn our offline activities into focal points for online discussion and interaction.
And, of course, there’s Foursquare, which practically pioneered the idea of using our locations for social means, imploring us to “check-in” everywhere from restaurants to subway stations in a vainglorious attempt to become virtual mayor.
Each of these services — and many more not mentioned here — offer legitimate reasons for broadcasting our location. But when used improperly — either due to obliviousness or negligence — there is also the opportunity for abuse.
In 2010, a site called Please Rob Me humorously — but also alarmingly — pulled Twitter and Foursquare postings containing location data that indicated a user was away from home. Used nefariously, this data could have, in theory, alerted would-be burglars that a user’s home was ripe for robbing.
And earlier this year, writer John Brownlee from the website Cult of Mac exposed a “creepy” iPhone app called Girls Around Me — which, as you can probably guess, displayed the location and personal information of nearby women, gleaned entirely from public Facebook data.
Both incidents demonstrated the potential danger of revealing too much about our whereabouts online. So how do you use your location for good, while avoiding the bad? The answer, of course, isn’t to cease using location-based applications and services entirely. On the contrary, there are situations where shareable, accessible location-data makes sense (on a road trip last year, for example, I used a service called Google Latitude to broadcast my location in real-time to followers online.)
On the one hand, you have services — such as your Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. Each has customizable privacy options, and it’s important you get acquainted with how they work. Restricting who has access to your data is especially key. This can be as simple as limiting location data in tweets or Facebook posts to an on-demand basis — in other words, when you choose to share — or preventing public access to your account entirely.
But equally important is knowing how and when location data is being shared. That’s why, on the other hand, you have devices — the phone, tablet or laptop upon which your location is being tracked. Both iOS and Android apps, for example, require permission to access location data on your phone, and you can manage recent activity — and even revoke access — from your phone’s settings. Typically, an onscreen icon is also clearly visible when location data is pulled, reducing the possibility of misuse.