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Location-based services are a double-edged sword

By Sam Killenberg

Foursquare and other location-based apps have garnered support from local businesses but drawn ire from privacy advocate. (Source: play.google.com)
Foursquare and other location-based apps have garnered support from local businesses but drawn ire from privacy advocates. (Source: play.google.com)

The double-edged sword that is social media is just getting sharper with the advent of a new concept in the world of apps: location-based networking.

Enter Foursquare, one of Top App Charts’ top 50 social media apps. The concept behind Foursquare is very simple. The estimated 30 million users of the free app can “check in” to places they visit when they’re out and about. Foursquare saves data about the check-ins and shares it with your Facebook friends or Twitter followers. Your friends can see where you’ve been, and you can see where they’ve been. Foursquare also deduces what other venues, restaurants or businesses you might want to check in to. It is a savvy way to promote local businesses and indicate popular hangouts through social networking.

Location-based social networking sites like Foursquare are taking off in the technology world, but their popularity has also drawn some alarmed critics. Many advocacy groups have called for stricter privacy rules and regulations of the apps.

“Aggregating by location clearly might provide some really useful information,” said Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, in an interview with CNN. But, he added, “We’ve already seen some of the mishaps that can occur when location is used in unexpected ways.”

Indeed, apps like Foursquare have opened the door for other, less innocent apps. Banjo shares tweets and posts from friends who are near you, along with giving you their physical location. Highlight constantly shares Facebook information with any other users, regardless if you know each other or not, within a 150 meter radius. The app Girls Around Me reaches the creepiness extreme of using check-in data to pinpoint locations, such as bars and nightclubs, where there are a lot of women. It even tells users the guy-to-girl ratio at these venues. That app was banned from the Apple Store.

Concerned parents and privacy advocates alike question the possible misuse of carelessly used location service apps. A website called Please Rob Me was founded in 2010 to raise awareness about the possible consequences of ill-used apps. If you check in too often, the site’s founders argue, potential burglars will have an easier job breaking into your house.

“The danger is publicly telling people where you are,” wrote Please Rob Me’s founders. “This is because it leaves one place you’re definitely not: home.”

However, proponents of Foursquare and other location-based apps stress the user’s choice and protection. They believe that the benefits of such technology outway the risks and that users who feel their privacy is violated can simply opt out.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding about location-based services,” said Foursquare co-founder Naveen Selvadurai. “On Foursquare, if you don’t want to people to know you are on a date or with a friend at a certain place, then you don’t have to let people know. You don’t check in.”

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