Study: Geolocation apps draw users, despite privacy concerns

Users are uncertain about whether the apps' benefits outweigh their risks

Nearly 60 percent of smartphone users employ apps that access their location data despite having concerns about risks to their privacy and even personal safety, according to a survey conducted by ISACA, a nonprofit group that focuses on risk and security management.

Respondents to the survey, which polled 1,000 smartphone owners by phone last month, indicated that their chief concerns were advertisers' access to their information and potential risks to their personal safety.

Concerns about personal safety were piqued this week after sharp criticism of an app called Girls Around Me that became known as a "stalker" app.

Researchers don't know why consumers continue to use products that make them uncomfortable, said Ryan Calo, a Stanford University privacy researcher. But they see the behavior often enough to have a name for it: the privacy paradox.

Location-based applications are booming, but location data is particularly sensitive because it can easily be identified with a particular user.

"If you think about it, most of us have one location where we spend our daytime hours at work and one location where we spend our nighttime at home, so after just a day or two of these data points, it's fairly obvious who they describe," said Aaron Brauer-Rieke, a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Experts suggested that the lure of interesting or useful new technology may overwhelm consumers' skepticism.

"These apps are really useful, and it's natural for us to be drawn to them. But I also think it's natural for us to want to understand and control how our information is being used," said Brauer-Rieke.

But despite growing awareness of the privacy implications of geolocation data, nearly half of all users don't know what is being collected or how it's being shared, ISACA found.

Nor are privacy concerns about location data merely hypothetical.

"It is out there. It is being collected. It is being sold," said Marios Damianides, a former president of ISACA who is now with Ernst & Young.

User location data is often shared with third-party advertising networks. And as a recent New York Times article reported, it is increasingly shared with law enforcement.

Consumers may have the most to lose when it comes to their location information, but corporations face downsides as well.

Damianides said ISACA undertook its study, of which the survey data was one part, to educate corporations on the legal responsibilities and business risks that personally identifiable user data presents.

The findings show that consumers are continuing to use location-based apps despite their concerns, but Brauer-Rieke noted that they could turn away from them if their concerns aren't addressed.

"I do think there's a business detriment if businesses let this location information mistrust get away from them," he said. "At the end of the day I think it's primarily incumbent on these app developers to really step up and be crystal clear about why they're using location data and how they're using it."

Cameron Scott covers search, web services and privacy for The IDG News Service. Follow Cameron on Twitter at CScott_IDG.

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