Infrastructure // PC & Servers
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6/24/2010
10:34 AM
Jim Rapoza
Jim Rapoza
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Mobile Apps Are Watching You

The Police famously (and creepily) sang "every step you take, I'll be watching you". Now, many people are worried about just how much their mobile devices and applications are watching where they go and what they do.

The Police famously (and creepily) sang "every step you take, I'll be watching you". Now, many people are worried about just how much their mobile devices and applications are watching where they go and what they do.Location-based services and applications have officially moved beyond the cool new feature phase and have become pretty much a fact of life of the modern online world. Every new phone has the ability to pinpoint exactly where you are and many mobile applications now include geolocation as one of their features.

Like most modern online advances, location-based services have both a good and bad side. Anyone who has used apps like MobileMe to find a lost iPhone or done a walking tour of a city using just their phone to get around or been able to find a local business quickly can appreciate the positive side of these features.

But the negative side of geolocation is what keeps many people up at night, so much so that they jump at any potential overstep in the use of geolocation data. Recently, Apple updated their privacy policy to state that they may sometimes share anonymous location data with third-parties.

To some this seemed to be just standard boilerplate privacy terms, basically spelling out that when you choose to use an application that takes advantage of location based data, the iPhone will send that data.

But to others this looks like just another step down the slippery slope to a world where businesses and the government can track everywhere you go and everything you do.

I can certainly understand these concerns. The dark side of geolocation encompasses everything from the annoying (such as having a message pop up on your phone saying "I see you've gone to four local pizza shops this month, you're walking right by Jimmy R's Pizza King and since you've tried the rest, why don't you try the best with this ten percent off coupon!") to downright scary thoughts such as violent stalkers or the ability of government or employers to see where you are and where you go every day.

While the upside of location aware services is obvious, I think vendors and other providers need to be very careful. All they need are a few high profile cases where someone is hurt or taken advantage of through the use of geolocation and there will be calls to limit or block the feature on most phones.

That's why providers need to be very up front about which applications and services use location data and make it very easy for users to block this usage or even turn it off completely (which in most phones now is almost impossible).

If implemented openly and with lots of user choice, location based services will remain a valuable tool. But if people feel like they are being tracked without their knowledge or permission, they may tell these location aware products to get lost.

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