New Attention to Locational Privacy Threats

Recently, the EFF released a report named “On Locational Privacy, and How to Avoid Losing it Forever“, introducing some of the basic threats to locational privacy:

Over the next decade, systems which create and store digital records of people’s movements through public space will be woven inextricably into the fabric of everyday life. We are already starting to see such systems now, and there will be many more in the near future.

Here are some examples you might already have used or read about:

  • Monthly transit swipe-cards
  • Electronic tolling devices (FastTrak, EZpass, congestion pricing)
  • Cellphones
  • Services telling you when your friends are nearby
  • Searches on your PDA for services and businesses near your current location
  • Free Wi-Fi with ads for businesses near the network access point you’re using
  • Electronic swipe cards for doors
  • Parking meters you can call to add money to, and which send you a text message when your time is running out

These systems are marvellously innovative, and they promise benefits ranging from increased convenience to transformative new kinds of social interaction.

Unfortunately, these systems pose a dramatic threat to locational privacy.

And today, the New York Times has an op-ed by Adam Cohen lamenting the threats to locational privacy in our contemporary technological ecosystem:

A little-appreciated downside of the technology revolution is that, mainly without thinking about it, we have given up “locational privacy.” Even in low-tech days, our movements were not entirely private. The desk attendant at my gym might have recalled seeing me, or my colleagues might have remembered when I arrived. Now the information is collected automatically and often stored indefinitely.

It’s good to see this attention to locational privacy, but it’s equally important to recognize that these threats aren’t new: I’ve been blogging and advocating for attention to privacy in public, privacy on the roads, and locational privacy for a number of years now (and I’m certainly not the only one). I’ve also published about particular threats to privacy on the roads (here and here), and tried (with limited success) to engage with designers of new vehicle-technologies to design privacy into the new protocols.

I’m thrilled to see the EFF draw renewed attention to locational privacy. I just hope they’re not too late to start advocating for change…

1 comment

  1. Michael,

    I agree that people’s location should be protected more efficiently. As I see it, the problem is divided into two – recording location data by third party applications and allowing individuals access to ones’ location information. Both cases can be solved by giving people more control over the information they wish to share. The question is how do you make people participate in the game. Does people really care? I believe they do. Are they willing to spend time defining their preferences? Depends on the intuitiveness of the interface they are provided with. Another factor that can make a difference is people’s ability to follow the results of their privacy preferences.

    The even bigger question is how do you convince (put aside regulations) the service provider that users should have more control. I think that showing them that users that feel in control share more can do the job.

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