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Privacy & Data

The Lifeblood of SXSW


Austin — The lifeblood of a big modern conference like SXSW is definitely the locational data apps like Gowalla and FourSquare.  Bloggers and tech folks use these apps here to link up with groups quickly and find out what the hot, trending parties are in downtown Austin. 

Let me preface this by saying I find these apps to be incredibly annoying.  Earning badges or trophies for "checking in" at the most possible places is not an appealing concept to me.  I don’t view my sheer PRESENCE at any location to be valuable enough information that I have to broadcast it to the world.  That’s why over the next few days, I have decided to use these applications to show how much locational data is just blatantly streamed and over-shared by the thousands and thousands of users of these apps at a large conference like this.

Since yesterday, I have been joined in an over-sharing experiment with CDT web producer, Cyrus Nemati.  We began by signing up for accounts on both GoWalla and FourSquare.  Both apps claim in different ways to be the "official" location data apps of SXSW – I don’t know whether that’s true.  But I do know that in 24 hours, we’ve found them to be incredibly invasive and a incredible waste of cell phone battery.

I won’t get into the fact that the constant data stream from my iPhone to satellites to the app has cut my battery life in half, or the fact that everyone on my Twitter feed is annoyed with me for auto-sending useless data and information to my networks; instead I'll just focus on how percise these locational apps can actually get.

For example, while waiting at the BWI airport, Cyrus and I discovered that we had the ability to actually check on not only specific gates, or specific flights, but specific bathroom stalls as well.  Now really – what could possibly be useful, data wise, about knowing that a friend in your network has a GPS location that corresponds to the men's room near gate A8?! Wait… don't answer that.

One of the main issues we've seen with the over-sharing and location data applications is the difficulty in navigating privacy settings within the app.  We highlighted our experiences with the video above of myself and Cyrus using the applications.  One of the more interesting moments in our locational data experience was when a friend alerted me that Foursquare had sent out a notification saying I was with someone when that person was actually not present at all.  Essentially, the application had assumed that since I was "checked in" at a location and a friend in my network was checked in at the same location – we must be together.  Well, we weren't – and I can easily see this leading to embarrassing situations with spouses, partners and loved ones who suddenly received notifications that you are "at Taco Bell w/ 133 others" when you said you went out alone.

This level of information sharing is, frankly, scary.  The incentives being offered by the companies include prizes and discounts for people who “check in” the most, but what is troubling is that it's not really “checking in” – it's "sharing data."  The more locational data you give, the more information in the cloud on your buying and traveling habits, the more easily you can be targeted by people you don't know for commercial usage.

CDT has written about the needs for public policy change on the locational data front – and has even testified before Congress about the "privacy risks raised by the increasingly ubiquitous availability of highly accurate, individualized location information."  Right now down here in Austin, we are living proof that thanks to locational data apps and the trendiness that accompanies them, if you want to slip away for some reason, the best you can do is "hide in plain sight."