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

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New iPhoneapp 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 (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?

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