Wherever you are, whatever you do

Posted by Sunil Abraham at Aug 25, 2010 06:45 AM |
Filed under:
Facebook recently launched a location-based service called Places. Privacy advocates are resenting to this new development. Sunil Abraham identifies the three prime reasons for this outcry against Facebook. The article was published in the Indian Express on 23 August, 2010.

Privacy activists are up in arms again, at Facebook’s recent launch of a new location-based service called Places. But what’s the new issue here? For years, telecom operators have been able to roughly locate you by triangulating the signal strength between the three nearest cell towers. In India, geo-location is part of the call logs maintained by the operator. That is how the police was able to determine that Bangalore resident Sathish Gupta killed his wife Priyanka. He took her mobile with him during a jog with his friend and then faked a phone call as an alibi. He knew that the time-stamps on the call logs would corroborate his lies. But the location-data nailed him. So, in short, the state and telecom operators know where you are even if you don’t have a smartphone with GPS support.

For those who can afford it? GPS support provides greater accuracy and reliability, independent of telecom signal strength. The immediate and future benefits are huge. For parents, MyKidIsSafe.com, allows them to create a geo-fence and receive automatic notification when the child leaves the safety zone. In combination with RFID, businesses are able to provide their customers with accurate updates regarding status of deliveries. The Karnataka police is able to verify that the police inspector issuing the challan using a Blackberry for a traffic violation is not doing it from home. Seven hundred and fifty thousand gay men from 162 countries use a geo-social network called Grindr to find love. In the future, most car-pooling services will be GPS-enabled. Geo-location-based crowd-sourcing will be used to predict and avoid traffic jams by measuring the density and velocity of mobile phones on various routes.

Privacy advocates worry that after helping the police solve crimes and fight terrrorism, telecom companies retain the logs instead of deleting, anonymising or obfuscating them. Especially so in India, given the lack of privacy laws, telecom operators, web and mobile service providers could retain the logs for customer profiling or worse still, sell the raw data or analysis to third parties. Cyber-stalkers, child molesters and rapists benefit. Cat burglars will know when you are away and be able to clean out your house in a more relaxed fashion. Geo-surveillance by a state, obsessed with terrorism, will have negligible benefits while extracting a huge social cost and significantly undermining national security.

So why this particular outcry against the world’s most successful social networking website? There are three reasons that come immediately to mind. First, Facebook has a terrible record with privacy. In the last five years, the default settings have moved from one where no personal data was available for anonymous access to one with anonymous access to everything except birthday and contact information. And these are settings that affect the majority of the half a billion people who don’t bother changing default settings. So there is no guarantee that Facebook will not get more intrusive with its default geo-location privacy settings.

Second, a friend can geo-tag you without requiring you to approve or confirm this. Once you are geo-tagged, all your common friends will be notified through the friend-feed system. This is similar to the current system of photo sharing. A friend can upload a inappropriate photograph and tag you almost instantly all your work-mates who also happen to be your Facebook friends get a notification via the feed. Of course, you can always untag the photo, change the settings and defriend the culprit but by then the damage is usually done.

Third, the Facebook user-interface for privacy settings is notoriously complex and cumbersome. Many users will think that they have managed to bolt down the security settings when in fact their personal data will remain all up for grabs. The half a million third-party products available today on the Facebook platform only compounds this problem.

Read the original in the Indian Express

Filed under: