CDT: Location-Enabled Web Deserves Closer Scrutiny, Better User Control

 

Washington–Apple’s release of the new iPhone 3.0 software to some 40 million users ushers in the beginning of a truly "location-enabled Web" thanks to new capabilities built into Web browsers that allow any Web site, anywhere in the world, to pinpoint a user’s location.

Apple built the location-enabled technology into the latest version of its Safari browser, which was released this week in the iPhone 3.0 software.

“While numerous other browsers have launched location-enabled versions, the ‘instant-on’ effect of some 40 million iPhone users going live with the new Safari browser marks the beginning of an era when pinpointing Internet users on a map – with the precision of a few meters, not a few miles – goes from complicated and onerous to simple and fast," said Alissa Cooper, chief computer scientist for CDT. "Although this location technology will allow innovative location-based Web services to flourish, it also creates significant challenges in addressing location privacy."

Location data should be under the control of an individual; who collects it, what it gets used for, whether or not it gets shared and how long the data is stored are all decisions CDT believes should be in the hands of users. Location-enabled technologies – including Web browsers – should be designed with privacy in mind from the beginning and with built-in user controls to allow individuals to manage their location data as it’s collected. And while there are some user controls built into these location-enabled browsers, the controls are far from perfect.

The convenience and innovation of location-enabled services and devices is undeniable. What’s missing from the current discussion is recognition of the potential sensitivity of location information. "A mobile phone can reveal highly personal, detailed facts, from visits to medical clinics or political rallies to off-hours recreational activities," said John Morris, Senior Counsel at CDT. "So given the privacy interests at stake and the relative lack of protection in the law that location has, we would expect location controls to be better than other kinds of technological controls on the Web."