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Privacy & Data

Location, Location, Location

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of participating on a panel about location-based services at the FTC’s town hall meeting, Beyond Voice: Mapping the Mobile Marketplace. Now that the number of U.S. consumers who own a mobile device has outpaced the number of U.S. Internet users, the policy issues in the mobile space are taking on increased importance. And with numerous new technologies that can determine the location of a mobile device – not to mention a government mandate that mobile phones should be locatable for 911 emergency purposes – location privacy issues are sure to be front and center. In a separate proceeding at the FTC, the Commission recently asked for input about what kinds of data should be considered "sensitive" in the behavioral advertising context, where consumers’ online activities are tracked for the purposes of displaying relevant advertisements to them. CDT suggested that geographic location information should be considered as a sensitive data category that deserves special protections, in part because of the unique privacy challenges that location information presents. Unlike clickstream data, location information can be collected all the time and everywhere. Although many consumers may not realize this – 35% of respondents in a recent study did not believe law enforcement had the ability to track the location of their cell phones – mobile devices are constantly making location information available, even when they’re not in active use. Location information can also reveal potentially sensitive destinations, like government buildings and medical clinics, and it has the potential to be abused for physical stalking or domestic violence. All of these qualities differentiate location information from other kinds of data. What location privacy does have in common with other kinds of privacy issues is the lack of a uniform set of rules governing the use and disclosure of the information. Telecommunications carriers are held to one set of standards for commercial use and disclosure of location information, while VoIP providers are held to a slightly different set, and third-party applications providers are covered under neither. The standards for government access to location information are also unclear; the case law in this area has not fully coalesced around what is required of government investigators before they can request real-time or historical location information from companies that have it. Clearing up some of these uncertainties will help to foster consumer trust in the burgeoning location-based environment. On the FTC panel we heard about both the wide array of services that may be able to leverage location and about the kinds of self-regulatory and internal company policies that are helping to shape the creation of location-based initiatives. If these are developed with privacy in mind from the beginning, consumers may soon realize, in a new mobile way, the promise of the age-old saying: location, location, location.