There Is No Geo-privacy

The recent launch of Facebook Places has ignited a fair bit of debate over personal location privacy. The technology (gps tagging) is nothing new, and we already see it built-in to a huge variety of apps and websites. Whilst Foursquare is the No.1 site dedicated to sharing your location, many others have the feature built-in as features of their service. Think Flickr, YouTube, Twitter, Audioboo, Runkeeper.

So why the fuss over Facebook places? Aside from the fact that this has the potential to be the biggest getotagged social community to date, it’s the way in which it’s been done: rather than making this an opt-in service, it’s opt-out, meaning that if you don’t change your default Places privacy settings others will have the ability to tag your location at any time without you knowing.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of friends being able to broadcast my location to the world at any time without my knowing. Aside from the burglary aspect (more of a concern in the UK and US I’d imagine), there’s the fact that it infringes upon your freedom to choose what you do with you time. In a place like Tokyo with 101 events going on each night, there are times when you have to choose between going to A or B.

Say for example a pseudo-friend of yours asks to meet you for a drink. You accept the invitation, but shortly afterwards receive an invitation to the party of a lifetime with the one person you’ve been wanting to meet for months and months. What you might do in that situation is tell the pseudo-friend that something’s come up, and ask to postpone.

You then go to the party, meet the person you’ve been wanting to meet for months, go home, sleep.

The next day you get an email from your pseudo-freind – they’re very upset as they can see from your Facebook location history that you were at a party last night – you’d been geotagged by 4 other people without your knowing.

However, this doesn’t have to be a problem – you can just change your Facebook privacy settings so that others can’t check you in.

But, the launch of geotagging on a platform as popular as Facebook does raise some interesting questions about what’s already happening with the geotag services that have been around for some time.

For example, check out this tweet sent by a follower of my friend @papadimitriou.

Made me feel a bit uncomfortable that. …but then I started thinking, well the same thing happened to me last night. Twice. I was out presenting at an event, and whilst giving my presentation, a couple of people took photos of me, uploaded them to Facebook, and tagged me. Having been taken with GPS-enabled mobile phones, those photos may well have location data embedded in them (they had the name of the event/location in the description in any case!)

Now where’s the privacy switch for that? …erm, there isn’t one.

Ultimately, no matter what your personal settings are for all of these services, you can’t control your geo-privacy, because you can’t control other people. Your friends may not see an issue with geotagging you without asking permission, and with this technology still in its infancy we’re yet to develop any social norms regarding its use.

Photography is now banned in a lot of shops to protect the privacy of other customers – are we now going to see signs popping up banning geotagging? I think not, as despite it being just as much an infringement of privacy as taking someone’s photo without permission can be, it’s totally unenforceable.

Personally, I’m a big fan of controlled geotagging, that is, where you’ve actually considered and if necessary changed the privacy settings of the various apps you use, and then use them whilst being conscious of people’s privacy.

I think the issue is is that it’s going to become increasingly difficult for people to do this, what with privacy/ geotag options being buried in sub-menus, and a lack of appreciation of the potential consequences of sharing your location.

Well, it’s early days. It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out.

(hmm, …having watched the video above a number of times I must say I can’t wait to start using Facebook places when it’s rolled out in Japan..!)