The Next Great Technopanic: Wireless Geo-Location / Social Mapping

by on July 12, 2008 · 30 comments

A few days ago, I posted an essay about the recent history of “moral panics,” or “technopanics,” as Alice Marwick refers to them in her brilliant new article about the recent panic over MySpace and social networking sites in general.

I got thinking about technopanics again today after reading the Washington Post’s front-page article, “When the Phone Goes With You, Everyone Else Can Tag Along.” In the piece, Post staff writer Ellen Nakashima discusses the rise of mobile geo-location technologies and services, which are becoming more prevalent as cell phones grow more sophisticated. These services are often referred to as “LBS,” which stands for “location-based services.”

Many of phones and service plans offered today include LBS technologies, which are very useful for parents like me who might want to monitor the movement of their children. Those same geo-location technologies can be used for other LBS purposes. Geo-location technologies are now being married to social networking utilities to create an entirely new service and industry: “social mapping.” Social mapping allows subscribers to find their friends on a digital map and then instantly network with them. Companies such as Loopt and Helio have already rolled out commercial social mapping services. Loopt has also partnered with major carriers to roll out its service nationwide, including the new iPhone 3G. It is likely that many other rivals will join these firms in coming months and years.

These new LBS services present exciting opportunities for users to network with friends and family, and it also open up a new world of commercial / advertising opportunities. Think of how stores could offer instantaneous coupons as you walk by their stores, for example. And very soon, you can imagine a world were many of our traditional social networking sites and services are linked into LBS tools in a seamless fashion. But as today’s Washington Post article notes, mobile geo-location and social mapping is also raising some privacy concerns:

what many users may not realize is that by sharing this information, they are creating often permanent records that can tell not only wireless providers, but also social networking sites, other users, and potentially law enforcement and civil attorneys every place they are and have been, as long as their phone and tracking device are on.

My friend Jim Dempsey of Center for Democracy & Technology was also quoted in the WP story raising additional concerns:

“How easy is it for the user to turn the location function on and off, and how easy it is for the user to delete past location information?” he said. “What are the companies collecting? Who are they sharing it with? How long do they store it? And what control does the consumer have over the information? These are the fundamental questions.” The wireless industry, through CTIA The Wireless Association, has issued guidelines for location-based services that stress consumer notice and consent and data security. But, Dempsey said, self-regulation is only part of the solution. What is needed, he said, is baseline federal legislation covering all firms that collect personal electronic data.

Moreover, when child safety advocates become more aware of this technology, you can imagine some of the other types of bogeyman scenarios that some people will conjure up: stalkers, jealous boyfriends, predators, etc, etc. So, I don’t think I’m going out on too much of limb here when I predict that mobile geo-location and social mapping will become America’s next great technopanic.

But before the hysteria begins, let’s step back and try to take a level-headed look at this issue and understand why we likely don’t have as much to fear as some privacy advocates or child safety advocates might suggest.

First, no one is forcing you to buy the phones equipped with LBS or purchase / download these technologies! These tools are luxuries that we are blessed to have at our disposal. These technologies are barely out of the cradle and we already have people hinting that preemptive regulation might be necessary based merely on hypothetical fears. That’s a recipe for destroying innovation.

Second, if you do choose to use LBS services, you will obviously first need to own a mobile phone. That means you pay money for that phone and a monthly plan. To the extent, therefore, this becomes a child safety issue, we have a very important tool for parents in place right up front: the power of the purse. As I have written in my book on parental controls and online child safety (p. 33), when media and communications technologies cost good money—and cell phones and mobile data plans certainly do!—parents have a very important additional check on the child’s media exposure or interactive communication capabilities. In the case of LBS, parents can first decide if they want to buy their kids phones with those technologies. If they do, then they will also be able to monitor and manage usage of such tools by keeping a close tab on the monthly statements. After all, the kids don’t pay the bills! Mom and Dad do.

Third, just as is the case with other child safety and privacy-based technopanics (social networking, Gmail, etc) the likely harm is being greatly over-stated and self-help tools and controls are being completely ignored. In this case, even if you do choose to purchase or use these services, you must take active steps to share your information to others.

Consider how Loopt works. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to play with the Loopt service and learn more about it. It’s very cool. But what really impresses me about Loopt is how the company has layered on safety and security controls. Loopt has put together a slick “privacy & security” website that summarizes the advice they give their customers. The best part about it is the “Be Safe Guide” that offers sensible guidance for safe and responsible use of this new technology. Loopt stresses that you should only open your network and share location-based information with a close circle of friends. And Loopt encourages users to confirm phone numbers with other users after they have open up their network to others. Because Loopt is a closed, private network, this process means it would be very difficult for privacy violations of any sort to occur. Here’s how they describe it:

To initiate a friend-request (or contact other users in any way), a subscriber must already know the other user’s mobile phone number. Even when a friendship request is successfully sent, the prospective friend must consent as well to a reciprocal “friendship connection” before any location sharing will occur. In other words, Loopt users only see where their established friends are, not strangers. Loopt is not an “open” social network and does not offer any browsing or searching of full profiles by non-friends.

And Loopt doesn’t retain all that “location history” over an extended period; just the most recent locational position such that users can connect when they want. So, in light of these many layers of protection, it is difficult for me to see how anyone can raise privacy concerns about how Loopt works.

Of course, it is true that there will be other rivals to Loopt in coming years, and they might have somewhat different policies or procedures. But remember three things:

First, the industry as a whole has been working together to develop a set of best practices on this front. As part of their effort to create and refine their “Wireless Content Guidelines,” the CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association, has worked with its member companies to create privacy and safety guidelines for this emerging industry sector.

Second, the combination of that industry self-regulation and vigilant oversight / pressure from privacy groups and industry watchdogs will put enormous pressure on LBS providers to make sure they take steps to protect user privacy / safety. Consumers will come to expect a certain baseline level of privacy and security based on industry leaders like Loopt. Those who ignore the wishes of consumers will have hell to pay in the marketplace. And bad PR or grief from all those privacy and child safety advocates will be a real killer for LBS providers who don’t craft and enforce sensible policies.

Third, self-help tools exist that can help users (or parents) take additional steps to protect privacy. And consumer education / safety awareness efforts for younger users is increasing. I talk at length about those efforts in my book. While LBS providers certainly should take steps to help consumers protect privacy, personal responsibility has to play a role here too. We shouldn’t be rejecting every new innovation that hits the market just because there is some potential theoretical downside or some way that consumers could really screw up and do something stupid with it. People have to be responsible. And self-help tools are flourishing to help consumers protect their privacy in many different contexts. Just as those self-help tools represent a better, less-restrictive way of dealing with concerns about media content, so too do they offer a superior way of dealing with privacy concerns. (I often wonder why it is that some of the free speech groups out there defend the existence of such tools as the “less-restrictive means” of protecting children as compared to speech-stifling regulations, but when it comes to privacy regulation they never bother to mention those same self-help tools and methods. What gives? If the tools represent the better alternative to regulation in the free speech context then why not also in the privacy context?? It makes no sense to me, and in an upcoming PFF report, Berin Szoka and I are going to be discussing this issue at much greater length.)

Regardless, and in conclusion, before people go making a mountain out of a molehill and creating a technopanic around LBS and services like Loopt, I do hope they take a deep breath and consider these facts before they rush to regulate this exciting new technology and emerging industry sector.

Previous post:

Next post: