Location, Location

Facebook Places, Foursquare, Gowalla – what do these things have in common?  Geolocation.

Geolocation is a practice of locating yourself using a smartphone app or a mobile web browser. Geolocation services have pioneered what can happen by announcing your physical location on the internet. Foursquare has been wildly popular with its badges and discounts, and Gowalla is rapidly catching up with its more user-centric approach. Facebook recently rolled out a feature called “Places” that does the same thing as Foursquare and Gowalla but with a couple additional features.  With the rollout of Places, I think the a geolocation privacy backlash has begun.

Geolocation as a service has always had an interesting take on privacy. By its very nature alone, it is far from anything that resembles private. Tracking your physical movements with your phone as a tool could either be done as you see fit (Foursquare/Gowalla) or tracked 24/7 (Google’s Latitude). The ideas behind geolocation as a service are all noble: It’s a great model for business to track their customer’s behaviors, it allows you to see where your friends are in location to you- (at least the ones that use the service), and you can get specials or discounts by checking into places. But just as Communism has failed in real life by enacting ideals regardless of actual human behavior, geolocation has done the same thing.

The main premise behind Geolocation is that someone (besides yourself) has a “right” to know where you are. I use “right” pretty broadly as the service you use determines the amount of information that is made public. To geolocation’s credit, it does work in theory. It’s human behavior that corrupts the whole idea.

The caveat is that no one has defined what “right” you have to let others’ use your data.  Businesses have a vested financial interest in trying to figure out how to get a consumer to give them money. Criminals would love any help in parting your with your possessions.  Jealous exes want to see what you are doing after you left their life. Friends want to see where you are at any given time without calling or texting. Advertisers want to predict your behavior and give you ads to help you make purchasing decisions (while netting them a tidy profit).

It may seem like I am trying to incite a privacy panic. I’m not. I use foursquare, gowalla, and places as I am curious to see which features work and which features don’t. In my generation, privacy has eroded a great deal.  Every year, more and more remote surveillance goes online worldwide. Whether it’s a traffic camera, an NSA satellite, your Google search history, or your facebook page- information about you is being collected and its increasing at an incredible pace. Information will always be collected about us as human beings, citizens, and consumers.

The future of geolocation as a service wholly depends on user defined interaction. This is where Google’s Latitude and Facebook’s Places features will ultimately stumble with the public at large. While I understand the idea of letting friends check me in at various locations, in actual practice it could be very damaging. I wouldn’t want someone to check me in somewhere I’m not present, especially incriminating locations.

Foursquare and Gowalla differ from Facebook Places in few ways.  Mainly, I determine what information my friends see. If I want my location to be known, I make it public. If I don’t, I won’t and nobody else can either.  Everyone should take responsibilty for information posted on the internet regarding themselves. If you are worried about something, don’t post it. It is really that simple. Don’t trust the internet (or some company behind the scenes) to keep you safe.

Geolocation is currently in a high growth stage and definitely has a future in the mobile world.   As with all new services, there is a learning curve and all users must adjust accordingly.  As companies providing geolocation continue to grow, businesses can begin to use new sources to advertise, promote, and even discount their products and services.  Consumers, however, must be aware that the information they provide to the public may be used in a multitude of ways.

(Disclaimer- I don’t support Communism)

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