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Geolocation, your privacy & the future of social networking

Exploring the world of location-aware phone apps


Geolocation is the tech buzzword of the year, and could revolutionise the way we socialise and discover new places. We look at just what you need to know before you plunge head first into using the technology.

Geolocation and your privacy

When you leave your home, you inevitably sacrifice some of your privacy; and by sharing your location on social networks, you could put yourself at some increased level of risk.

But geolocation services are working hard (without always succeeding) at keeping you safe from the potential dangers of sharing your location publicly.

Most geolocation apps let you set a certain level of privacy, but you can never be too wary of people with bad intentions who may be following your updates.

As a first step toward protecting yourself, it's a good idea not to expose your home address on these services.

Privacy advocates have already gone to great lengths to raise awareness of the dangers of location sharing.

One example is the PleaseRobMe.com website (now retired), which aggregated tweets with location data attached, to highlight the dangers of having thieves invade your home when you tweet a distant location.

Unfortunately, keeping your whereabouts hidden from other people defeats the purpose of geolocation, so you have to make sensible decisions about how widely you share your status and how carefully you guard your privacy settings.

Brightkite, for example, lets you select for each post whether to share it only with your friends or with the whole world; however, if you cross-post your location on Twitter, any ill-intentioned follower could use that information.

Twitter's approach to geolocation, in contrast, lets you select whether to include your whereabouts for each individual message.

Google Buzz does the same thing. Twitter also lets you delete your entire geolocation history, in case you change your mind and want to erase your tracks.

Where is all of this heading?

Right now, geolocation apps seem to be the province of hip geeks and other tech enthusiasts.

They also seem to be mainly about fun: Without the gaming features that Gowalla and Foursquare add to the technology, those apps wouldn't be nearly as popular.

But as geolocation technology gets better and more precise, it may prove to be extremely useful in more-serious apps, such as those used by public safety and news-gathering professionals.

But as more apps, fun or serious, begin attaching our locations to our messages, related privacy issues will remain a hot topic of conversation, perhaps forcing us to reexamine our views about how much privacy we need to maintain in our digital lives.
As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested, privacy isn't what it used to be, and many people may be willing to surrender some of our online privacy in return for increasingly smart, convenient, and enjoyable apps.

  1. How it works, the apps you need and how your privacy will be affected
  2. The first wave of apps
  3. Google, Facebook and Twitter join the party
  4. Geolocation and your privacy

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