Location Tracking Software: Will the Revolution be Killed by Fear?

Cell phones and other devices reveal the location of users, which may someday enable a terrible crime. Where is location-based technology headed?
Something horrible could happen, but nobody knows what.

At least that seems to be the consensus among Location-Based Services (LBS) experts. The conventional wisdom here at the Geo-Loco conference in San Francisco is that at some point in the future -- it could be next year, or it could be tomorrow -- some creepy weirdo or enterprising sociopath will use location services like Foursquare, Google Buzz for Mobile, Google Latitude, Twitter, Facebook or any number of location-oriented startups to commit a lurid crime.

It could be a stalker, kidnapping, terrorist act -- who knows?

When it happens, the media will go nuts. Politicians will pander to public paranoia. Grandstanding Luddites will call for the heads of those in the industry responsible for making us all vulnerable to being tracked, hunted, stalked and exposed to evil doers of every stripe. Think of the children!

They know this because historically, whenever old crimes use new technology -- for example, when a con man finds and contacts victims through the Internet -- the technology is blamed. In fact, it's the novelty of the technology to the public that makes the story newsworthy. There may be a hundred stalking cases a day, but the one that involves Facebook will always lead the news on CNN.

The doom and gloom about the coming "event" is the only thing bridling otherwise unbridled enthusiasm for services that use knowledge about where you are to make the world a better and more profitable place.

And the possibilities truly are amazing.

With names like Loopt, Gowalla, Whrrl, MyTown, Yelp, Brightkite and Rummble, the services based on location sound harmless enough. They promise a new world of fun, convenience and a universe of social, economic and personal benefits.

Cell phones usually know where they are, either through GPS electronics, through knowledge about which local cell towers they're using, or via some other means. With the right software, you can be alerted if your friend is three blocks away. Starbucks can offer a free coffee as you walk past a store. You can make your cell phone tell you where the closest high-quality pizza joint is located. The entire world can be transformed into a competitive game, where checking into this bar or that restaurant enables you to earn "badges" and become "mayor."

It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt. While each of the companies peddling these services will convincingly list the safeguards put in place to assure privacy, the collective use of location data is poorly controlled.

Location privacy experts both inside and outside the industry tend to say the right thing, which is that the key to privacy is putting the user in control of what is shared, and with whom. That's a good story for now, before the "event" has occurred and hysterical public scrutiny has yet to descend on the industry.

Users are already unwillingly, unknowingly and certainly unwisely sharing their location data. Services like Foursquare use a "user-action model," meaning location isn't shared until the user "checks in" or takes some other conscious action.

Other services, such as Google Latitude, can be placed in automatic mode, broadcasting location all the time. Still others, such as Loopt, use a "hybrid" model where you can pick and choose how location is shared.

All of this focuses on the user-facing "social" uses of location. But there's another, hidden use.

Cell phone carriers know where your phone is every time you use it. All that data from all users is constantly being harvested and stored in databases, and possibly sold to various companies for marketing purposes.

All this is going on without user awareness.

Advocates will tell you that the data is "anonymized," meaning that the data is aggregated into faceless clusters that enable trends and targeting without compromising the privacy of individuals.

Unfortunately, "there really is no such thing as anonymized location data," according to the nerdy genius CEO and co-founder of Loopt, Sam Altman. His implication is that everyone who uses a cell phone -- regardless of whether or not they opt into location services like Foursquare -- leaves behind a trail, a "Life Graph" of everywhere you go.

To Altman, this is a good thing. If people would only embrace it, the world would be a much better place. Good luck convincing the world of that, Sam -- especially after the coming "event."

The truth is that location data can be used to increase personal safety. Parents can keep tabs on kids, or track teens to keep them out of danger. Police can use location data to hunt down criminals and terrorists. People can call for help and get it, even if they don't know where they are.

Location services are loaded with promise, but also peril. Our day-to-day lives may one day be profoundly transformed for the better by ubiquitous location services.

But first we've got to figure out the privacy issues -- and somehow make it through the coming horrible crime that everyone in the location-based services business just knows is going to happen.

And when the "event" happens, and the media hype and hysteria begins, where will you be on the issue of location services?

Tags: location-based applications, cell phones, location-based services, GPS, GPS navigation

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