Musings on Business and Tech

Location, Privacy, and Stalkers

The privacy implications that arise out of the recent explosion of location-based services will prove to be one of the most important topics of the coming year (and beyond). Andrew Hyde, in a recent blog post titled, “Committing Location Based Service Suicide,” writes about why he quickly went from location zealot to frustrated recluse:

One specific interaction really bothered me to look at the benefits of these services. I had someone look up historical data on my checkins and put themselves in places so they would ‘run into me.’ Once I switched my habits, they did as well (that is when I figured it out). Their response: ‘well, you put it out there.’ I did.  I opted in to getting stalked.

As I’ve intimated at before, in order for location-based services to succeed they must do two things:

  • Give users an easy way to manage their privacy settings and to restrict the visibility of their location to certain subsets of friends
  • Make the service so valuable that it’s worth it to the users to reveal their locations

I had mentioned that the Foursquare model is pretty good because you only broadcast your location to your friends on the service (opt-in). But as Andrew rightly notes, “Foursquare…lists the picture and location of recently crowned mayors on their homepage.” This is akin to what Facebook does when they publicly expose parts of your profile. The problem with this “feature” on Foursquare is, as Andrew says, “Here is a picture of someone, with the address of the place they usually hang out. I find that troubling, especially for someone just wanting to share with friends.”

He also notes that it’s simply just not worth it. It’s not worth risking your privacy in return for getting a badge or becoming the “mayor” of your favorite bar. Nor is it worth a little coupon that place might send you. A location-based service has to have some other value proposition (other than just the novelty of bragging about where you are), so that users will accept the dip in privacy for whatever they receive in return.

I think we have yet to see a service that incorporates these two concepts successfully.

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