Open question: How much location information are you willing to share?

Location adds a new twist to privacy debates.

A recent back-channel conversation here at O’Reilly focused on the overlap between location, data, and privacy. We have these sorts of chats from time to time — and they’re often lively — but what struck me about this one was the dual nature of the topics at hand: all offer immense opportunity, all also offer healthy doses of bewilderment.

That duality translated into divergent viewpoints. It was clear from the call that some people accept the shifts away from privacy because they’re exchanging data for useful goods and services. Other folks are more concerned. “I don’t care to help them lower the bar on who gets my information,” one caller said in reference to data-sharing services.

Location added a twist to the discussion. Those of us comfortable forking over private information, like credit card numbers and financial statements, might not think much of sharing location data. But a person who’s been tracked by a stalker or a restrictive government probably has vastly different perspectives on location sharing — and those perspectives deserve careful consideration.

The one thing everyone seemed to agree on during the call is that these topics are open-ended and multi-layered. That got me thinking: If we’re all struggling with this internally, why not make the conversation public and see what other people have to say?

This post is the result. I’d like to learn how Radar readers are dealing with these tricky topics.

Here’s a few starter questions to kick things off:

  • How much location data are you willing to share?
  • What do you expect in exchange for that data?
  • How much control do you need over your location data to be comfortable sharing it?
  • If you’re uncomfortable with the kind of location data sharing that happens with Foursquare or Facebook Places, how do you feel about the hidden location data collection that happens when you buy something with a credit card, when you make a mobile phone call, or when you watch the little arrow on Google Maps that shows where you are on your route? Why?
  • Do you know how credit card companies make use of your location data?

Please weigh in through the comments. (Note: You’re welcome to address any and all adjacent topics that might pop up. I’d like to see where this goes.)

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  • What about spurious check-ins?
    Checking-in when you are not really there.

  • You don’t even need to make a mobile phone call. Just carrying your phone around (turned on) records your approximate location as you move between cells and your phone registers itself with various towers. And it seems that law enforcement obtains this information (along with your call history) without a warrant – just a simple “pen register” request which requires near-zero effort or oversight:

    I’m one of the founders of a geolocation sharing service (, and I’m continually amazed when people claim outrage about privacy. You’re unwittingly sharing your location with telephone company employees and government agencies nearly every moment of the day, and suddenly you’re worried that a few hand-picked friends are going to see it? We actually mention this issue – and link to the above article – in our privacy policy (, but it doesn’t seem to quell the complaints.

    FWIW, I share my location with my friends pretty frequently, but using the Latitude/Mobcast model of realtime updates. I can’t be bothered to “check-in” to places; my phone should be telling me where I am, not the other way around.

  • All very good questions, but here’s one question that’s missed: will I really have a choice?

    The reality of the situation is that this “choice” is limited to only part of the equation. More often than not this is only an option to share what is already known and already shared within some scope of a social network familiar to you (friends only vs. the world, and so on).

    But there’s no choice to prevent any location information from being shared or extracted in the first place.

  • Den

    Check out Geo Messages approach: It shares place only keeping identity info out of that

  • Tyler Bell

    Mac – your questions hide an important nuance in the discussion: sharing location with whom? The LBS sector has grown, for better-or-worse, out of the ‘buddy finding’ generation of products, and I think this biases subsequent conversations on the subject.

    Many services use location to provide geo contextual consumer benefit divorced of ‘location sharing’ in the more ‘social’ sense. Consumer comfort levels will be based largely upon where the requesting application sits on the location sharing continuum.

  • I personally don’t care who get my geo data and ready to broadcast it realtime to anyone want to use it.
    For example in my blog Latitude widget displays where I’m – though it have some bizzare refresh intervals. In latutude itself it’s track my every move (from my always connected android phone) – but to widget it goes with intervals I don’t really yet understand.
    Of course if someone evil will ever stalk me – I probably will be want fast way to hide it completely and fast.

  • Wilbur

    No problem letting everybody know my lat/long coordinates +/- 10 degrees, and my altitude +/- 1km.

  • Paul hays

    I am usually less concerned about my location privacy when I am on the move. If I am trying to navigate a new city or a city in a foreign language, such as Osaka, I am more willing to give up my location, as I would in going up to a stranger on the street and saying, “Where am I, and do you know how to go to X?”

    And I am usually willing to release my location for professional reasons, as when I let everyone know I am at a specific conference venue, or doing research somewhere.

  • John B

    Depends on usage. My location is potentially monetizable to the ad/marketting communities – are you going to pay me to tell you what books I look at, which parts of the grocery store I spend the most time in, which stores I physically visit? How much?

    If *I* am asking for information – directions from my current location, for instance – it makes sense that I give up some information. Pretty much HAVE to, if I don’t know the local landmarks! But that, too, is another extreme, and doesn’t address what ELSE that information may be used for.

    Shades of grey – there are no simple, complete answers, I fear.

  • Alex Tolley

    Ever since reading Brin’s “The Transparent Society” I have been pretty much resigned, although not really happy with, the idea that data about me, including location will be recorded. The real issues are who uses the data and why.

    In this regard, it is the very lax data privacy laws in the US that worry me. As we’ve seen in the distant past, law enforcement has been used to spy on citizens, and in the recent past, IRS employees have disclosed tax information to interested parties.

    I was just as a recent talk on life logging, with the speaker not even hinting at the issues of privacy, i.e. control of the data.

    I really don’t want to give up the conveniences of society, but I suspect that we’ll see the emergence of, and use of, products that will maintain privacy for those people who prefer it.

    To take the most trivial example that irks me is the habit of grocery stores to address you by name when you pay with plastic. I personally don’t like to be addressed by name by a stranger in front of other strangers, even though the store must have gauged that the majority of its customers either like the faux familiarity or don’t mind it.

  • John Fritz

    I don’t want to share location data on social media. I’m paranoid enough as it is, so I don’t need folks continually popping up where ever it is I am.

    Now if somebody made an application showing me the location where people I DON’T want to see…..that’s an entirely different story.

    Another reason I don’t share is that if folks know where you are, they also know where you are NOT. Cyclist Dave Zabriskie got his house in Utah cleaned out as he continually twittered away about racing in the Tour of California.

    I don’t mind sharing with the mobile phone companies, because at this stage they haven’t tried to manipulate my behavior (example: location based ads). The first time they do, watch how fast I throw the phone into the nearest sewer drain.

    I don’t know ALL of the what the credit card companies do with my location data, but I do know they QUICKLY discovered fraudulent purchases on my account after my card was skimmed on a business trip. (Why is it the first thing skimmers do is run the adult bookstore?)

    My personal twitch point is when sharing data leads to intrusive behavior by individuals or companies.

  • I think the underlying question needs to be answered first: how many people know or realize that they are trading their personal information with marketeers, data collectors etc.? I.m.o. most people, apart from the early adopters and internetgeeks and insiders, are not aware of these dynamics. And this question should not be limited to just location based applcations.

    There is a great lack in transparency and frankly I do not understand, in the light of recent outcries about privacy (mainly Google and Facebook), why the industry doesn’t pick up the glove. People need to be informed and educated, right now they don’t even know they have a choice.

  • Nathan D. Ryan

    I know that this post has been out for a while, but I wanted to comment on this point: A lot of data is already public, even if its not published. There is a difference. My willingness to share my location is mostly irrelevant to whether my location can be shared.

    Sites like Gawker and, more recently, JustSpotted demonstrate that much of this data is already public, just not published. What happens when someone else publishes my location, without my consent, and possibly for her own benefit? A colleague, for example, or a friend at a restaurant? Aside from asking for such data not to be published, there really isn’t much that I can do unless it crosses some ambiguous legal boundary of harassment.

  • I like to think of privacy as a set of information attributable to a person. That’s to say that there’s a difference between saying “a certain person went to place A at 4:00 PM and then place B at 5”, and connecting that nugget of info to a specific person who can be identified. So as long as it’s only for statistical data without any identifiers attached to it, it shud be ok since people wud not be able to trace u all the time.

  • Gary

    How would you feel if someone is physically stalking you and writing your movements down on a note pad? Would you call the police, especially if you see him day after day? That’s the same thing here!! And remember, activities that are considered legal expressions of free speech today can be called treasonous tomorrow.