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March 12, 2012

They know where you are (SXSW 2012)

AUSTIN, TX, USA – This morning we sat and had breakfast with Joe Brown, editor-in-chief of Gizmodo. “Have you guys seen Highlight? It’s crazy”. An appropriate time for Joe to talk about an app which enables you to share even more information about yourself, but with complete strangers and in the real, rather than just virtual, world. Today he hosted a panel discussion with a lot of focus on location tracking and privacy.

One of the biggest questions surrounding privacy, particularly when it comes to location is who’s the gatekeeper of that information? Your device contains the GPS which actually enables it to understand where in the world you are right now. Your operating system can make that information available to applications in a common language. Your applications will make that information useful to you, enabling you to figure out where you are, or get 50 cents off a slice of pizza. 

The panel Joe hosted, Location Tracking – threatening or Value-added?, included a range of speakers, including our own Christopher Peralta, who is head of location and advertising services for Nokia in North America. He was joined by Cameron Clayton VP of digital services at The Weather Channel, FourSquare product manager Siobhan Quinn and VP of Mobile at CNN, Louis Gump. 

So who’s in charge?

There’s a healthy benefit to having data surrounding your location, be it in helping you to find your way home, or getting cheaper food thanks to location-aware advertising. But, with myriad parties playing a role in making that information useful, exactly who should be responsible for the safekeeping of that information? 

This much we know: We want the information about where we are at any given point in time (or at least, I do) but we don’t want it abused by anyone.

During the (pretty heated) panel discussion, Joe got radical and suggested we might need to think about privacy in a new way. I’d personally go one further and suggest that we already are, given the propensity of large portions of the global population to share the most inane details of their day (particularly annoying are the ones who only share their location when they’re somewhere their friends or peers might deem impressive). 

The big debate

But there’s a more serious issue at stake here and that is simply who is responsible for respecting people’s privacy and ensuring that data captured, particularly around location is treated with respect. Not only are there multiple agendas at play, given that hardware needs one thing, operating systems something else, app developers something different again.

On top of that we have multiple platforms to think about – what might be regarded as a definition of ‘place’ on one platform, could well mean something totally different on another platform. And that’s without even thinking about apps.

One of the main points raised during today’s talk, and a very good one I thought, was the need for a common language and common practice around the capturing and handling of location-based data. Particularly when it comes to people’s privacy.

Things are moving fast, new apps are coming out on different platforms on a daily basis and we’re rapidly moving towards a location-aware world where everything around us is coming to life not just in front of our eyes, but on our devices too.

Joe Brown is applying his own radical thinking to the question of privacy. But let us know what you think in the comments below.