Don’t forget to protect privacy when using location-based services during the holidays

Nov 18, 2010
Tech

A new survey says use of location-based services will spike this holiday season, with more consumers checking in for discounts and coupons to help get the best prices when shopping for gifts. Mashable.com reports that according to arecent survey of about 1,200 Wi-Fi users by JiWire, itself a location-based services (LBS) company, 89 percent of […]

A new survey says use of location-based services will spike this holiday season, with more consumers checking in for discounts and coupons to help get the best prices when shopping for gifts.

Mashable.com reports that according to arecent survey of about 1,200 Wi-Fi users by JiWire, itself a location-based services (LBS) company, 89 percent of those questioned said they plan to use location-based apps and services during the holidays. 49 percent said they were open to the idea of “checking-in” with LBS apps and services at different locations.

The information is definitely a boon for the LBS market, which has been picking up steam with more users downloading apps like Foursquare and Gowalla, or using services such as Facebook Places, to let people know where they are on social media networks. A lot of services also offer discounts to people for frequent check-ins, or scour locations near a user’s phone GPS signal to find local deals.

These apps can be very handy for the holidays, and some apps that one wouldn’t necessarily expect to include LBS are introducing additional services this season. We told you about ScanLife’s update in our Fresh iPhone Apps post, which lets you use the barcode scanner app to search nearby stores’ inventory for better prices on products. Target (TGT) recently updated 242 of its stores across the country with check-in support for ShopKick, an app that gives users points for checking in to stores that can be used to redeem gift cards and other rewards. Target joins Macy’s (M), Best Buy (BBY) and a few others to offer the service.

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Concerns over privacy growing

LBS apps can certainly help make the holiday shopping season a little cheaper, with so many businesses supporting them and so many consumers interested in using them. But like other areas of the growing social media and mobile markets, LBS isn’t without some gray area with regards to privacy and the law.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California recently released a guide titled “Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In,” which details steps users can take to protect their privacy from LBS apps and companies. Get it as a free PDF here.

According to the ACLU, LBS information can be as dangerous as it can be useful. The organization’s post about its guide mentions the fact that social network updates sometimes give criminals enough information to perform robberies — in fact, the website pleaserobme.com used to take a satirical look at LBS oversharing by gathering status updates that could make such crimes possible. LBS and GPS information also has been coming up more frequently in stalking cases, according to a Justice Department report.

The gray area also extends to what law enforcement officials are allowed to do with LBS and GPS information, and how they can access it. Between fall 2008 and fall 2009, law enforcement  agencies asked for and received GPS data from cellular provider Sprint (S) more than eight million times, according to a Sprint manager who disclosed the information at a non-public conference. Current law doesn’t require any sort of warrant or judicial order for police to gain access to GPS information from phone companies.

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The point is, like any information you share online, you should take part in location-based services cautiously. ACLU also released this chart that compares five big LBS providers on the basis of privacy. Before you head out to stores and give out information that could get you discounts, but may leave you vulnerable, it’s worth a look through your apps’ settings to see how your information is shared.

Also, you should avoid checking in at a location and then committing a crime, because apparently cops know how to use Foursquare, too.

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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