Without a handle on your GPS-equipped smartphone or geolocation services, you may have only yourself to blame for "friending" Big Brother. Here's why.
Mobile social networks Foursquare, Gowalla, and Loopt are designed to make it easy for your friends to track your whereabouts as you go to restaurants, bars, and shopping malls. A bevy of iPhone and Android mobile apps make use of location information. Facebook says it will introduce features later this summer that will make location sharing as easy as updating your status.
These services have privacy advocates urging consumers to be careful as to how much they reveal about themselves. In February, privacy groups spoke at congressional hearings on consumer privacy and have been urging lawmakers to limit how much advertisers can track users of these services. Privacy guidelines for location-based services and advertising are outdated and obsolete, they say.
Peer Privacy Pressure
Reward-based geolocation services such as Foursquare, which doles out coupons and "points" for members who broadcast their location, spur these concerns.
"You need to consider whether there is anything that your location might indicate about you that you don't want to be public," says Peter Eckersley, senior staff technologist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties group. For example, he says, "are you going to church? To a political meeting? To a nightclub? To the beach on a Tuesday? Are there people who might hold those things against you?"
Mobile Ad Targeting
Still other experts worry about advertisers eager to break into a nascent direct-to-mobile marketing industry. Mobile social network Loopt says it is developing an ad service that can target offers to repeat customers of a specific store just as they walk in. The company says that advertisers want to reach people as they are making a buying decision.
Apps that run on smartphones and location-aware gadgets, such as the iPad, also concern privacy activists. "With the help of GPS technology, every advertiser is going know where you are [and] what you're doing on your phone," says the CDD's Chester. Mobile apps--even e-readers--will know how close you are to a mall, a restaurant, or your doctor's office, for instance.
Can We Stop Looking Over Our Shoulders?
What is the future of privacy? Will we all just throw up our hands and agree with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who famously stated in 2009 that "the age of privacy is over"? Better Advertising's Meyer believes that the creepy "someone is watching me" feeling will dissipate as technology allows you greater control over your privacy, and as transparency increases.
Maybe then we can all stop looking over our shoulders.
PCWorld contributor Ian Paul helped with this report.