Blog Post

How Location Sharing Went From Crazy to Compulsory in Just 2 Years

New iPhone (s aapl)app Guardly (which I covered in a post Thursday) is all about location sharing. It’s what makes the app distinct from a simple emergency call button app, and it basically constitutes the app’s main selling feature. So how did location services go from being a privacy boogeyman to a highly sought-after feature in more apps in just two years?

Google Latitude Will Be the Death of Us All

In 2009, when Google introduced Latitude (s goog) (after its acquisition of Foursquare predecessor Dodgeball in 2005), which let users share their current location with trusted contacts in real-time, privacy lobbyists were up in arms. Privacy International director Simon Davies said:

Many people will see this as a cool technology but the reality is it will be a privacy minefield. I would be concerned about any integrated use across Google services as their security is so poor and it’s becoming the world most pervasive system.

That was a comment talking about the privacy issues of location information when managed by a massive company and a leader in the tech industry. If the security of that information was in doubt, then it must be doubly so when entrusted to the likes of startups and tiny development studios with nowhere near the technological sophistication of Google. Yet I didn’t see a single headline about Guardly that suggested privacy as an issue surrounding the app.

Brightkite and Foursquare Pave the Way

In the two years between Google Latitude’s introduction and today, a lot has happened with regards to location sharing services. Brightkite, an early location-based social networking website actually predated Latitude by a couple years, but it started becoming more popular in 2009 following its acquisition by mobile social network Limbo and the introduction of its smartphone apps. Ultimately, though, its popularity couldn’t compete with that of Foursquare, which was launched in 2009 by Dodgeball originator Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai, or with Gowalla, which raised significant funding in 2009 ($8.4 million). Foursquare and Gowalla (and by extension, location services) took center stage at South by Southwest Interactive in 2010, with Gowalla taking home the award for best Mobile application at the event’s awards.

Even as the location-based networks were accumulating accolades, they were also still a target for privacy fears. Those anxious about Foursquare described scenarios wherein data could be collected from you online life to paint a perfect picture of your quotidian habits and schedule for use by malevolently-minded individuals. Location sharing was the darling of the tech world, but it wasn’t yet sitting well with many.

Big Players Return, and Everything Checks In

Google Latitude recently introduced check-ins, and Facebook introduced Places before that. A recent update to Places allows users to get directions with one tap from their own location to those places where their friends are checking in. I made a joke about it in my post on the subject, but I didn’t see the kind of alarmist privacy-oriented headlines surrounding the update that surely would’ve clogged newsreaders two years ago.

I find that most new apps I download these days ask for the ability to determine my location, for one reason or another. And I’ve yet to deny an app that access, because in almost every case it’ll make the app experience better for me as a user.  Do I ever worry about my privacy when sharing that data with apps like Guardly? No. And downloads of similar apps indicate I’m not alone in being unconcerned. Life360, a mobile family safety app that also tracks users’ locations in real time, is on track to reach the 2 million user mark in the next few days, with 100,000 families signing up weekly, according to info the company shared with me via email.

The Optimism of Sharing

I don’t think this apparent level of comfort with sharing something as formerly private as our real-time whereabouts is at all troubling. Rather the opposite, in fact. That people are growing more comfortable with sharing more of their personal info with mobile applications indicates a refreshing optimism about their use. And that’s a good thing, because by and large, app developers aren’t out to screw us; especially now that the curated app marketplace model is catching on. They want to use the info we provide to deliver a user experience that helps their app stand out from the crowd, and also keeps us coming back to use it. As long as everything remains opt-in and we exercise our own due discretion, is that really so bad?

7 Responses to “How Location Sharing Went From Crazy to Compulsory in Just 2 Years”

  1. Darrell, you have a very optimistic view of the Big Data industry. It may be true that the app developer has no ill intent, but once the information is collected and shared w/ third-parties, you have no control (or knowledge) of where it is going and how it is being used. Most app developers need to make money and they do this by installing code provided by third-party advertisers. The code could allow the advertisers to access your data, including the location you are broadcasting by using the app. Advertisers collect data in order to build a detailed profile about you. This data is re-packaged and sold to the highest bidder. Online data brokers get their hands on it, combine it with info from public records and sell it for $40 to anyone, including those with ill intent. At Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, we maintain a growing list of more than 140 online data brokers. It is a very real and serious problem. I would think twice before sharing your location with the apps that don’t need it to function.

  2. pgattocpa

    What I would be interested in knowing is whether a failure of security in a friend’s phone I have authenticated to see where I am at can be used to hack into my phone?

    An analog would be a lack of security in my home computer can cause it to get hacked into and then, when I log into my company’s network from home, I have just exposed the company network.

    Thus, merely becasue I don’t think Google, Guardly, et al have ulterior, dark motives, doesn’t mean that others don’t as well and I may be opening up myself to problems even with an authentication step requirement (depending upon the answer to my question above).

    And frankly, Darrell, mentioning that people are okay with giving up their privacy because a few million have signed up for a service is not an argument. How many of those people actually know what they are doing with respect to privacy? Using that logic you could say that people aren’t worried about cyber crime because hundreds of millions of people in the US alone use an internet connection.

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  4. martin

    Maybe in the USA but certainly not in europe I am seeing very little interest in location based services. I do not know of any of my friends who use these services. No one is interested where their friends are, it just isn’t of any value unless you are a burglar. GPS is one of the things you switch off on a phone and is only useful if you are using the mapping apps. On Facebook the useless Places service seems to be something that you can not hide on your newsfeed. It is information of no value.

  5. Hi – I’m Guardly’s UX Designer and I just wanted to make a comment about Guardly’s use of location services vs an app like Google Latitude.

    Google Latitude is designed to be an always-on service. Despite the fact that you need to authenticate all your contacts before they can see where you are, it’s a bit more of a potential privacy powderkeg because Latitude keeps running even if you quit the app. They do send periodic emails to remind you that it’s running in the background, but without those I don’t think most people would be aware that they’re being tracked after quitting the app.

    Guardly also does real-time location tracking, but the big difference is that we only do it during a user-initiated emergency alert; once the alert ends, so does the GPS tracking. We’re not harvesting this data, we’re just trying to enable people to better connect to their safety network during an emergency. I think people are also concerned that Google could be harvesting Latitude data to improve their ad service in some way – Google’s mobile privacy policy is very clear about the data collects, which is basically everything.

    When it comes to people’s privacy concerns, it’s all about context and potential for ulterior motives. People need to know when their location is being shared and who it’s being shared with. They also need to have some level of trust in the company that’s providing the service. Despite Google’s “don’t be evil” motto, there are still those who worry about giving so much information to a company of that size (with obvious advertising motivations).

    Letting people share their real-time location with trusted contacts during an emergency is obviously one of Guardly’s major benefits. We try to make it clear how the service works, and we’ll continue to work on improving that understanding. To quote GI Joe: knowing is half the battle!