Home Survey: Over Half of Location-Based Services Users Fear Loss of Privacy

Survey: Over Half of Location-Based Services Users Fear Loss of Privacy

Remember PleaseRobMe? The social experiment (now shuttered) formerly displayed real-time updates from Foursquare users who publicly broadcasted their current location via Twitter. In aggregate, the site’s founders said, this data could be used by burglars looking to find empty houses to rob.

Although many in the tech community dismissed the experiment as engaging in fear-mongering and scare tactics to make its point about the potential dangers of location-based services, it may have actually hit a nerve among mainstream users. According to a new survey of over 1,500 social networking users who own geolocation-ready mobile devices, over half (55%) are worried about the loss of privacy that comes with the use of mobile applications which broadcast your location.

The survey, commissioned by security company Webroot, asked online participants in the U.S. and U.K. to share their thoughts via an online survey in June of this year. Out of the 1,645 respondents, 55% said they feared loss of privacy, and 45% feared letting burglars know when they were away from home.

Women were more worried about the risks than their male counterparts, the survey found, with 49% reporting they were “highly concerned” about letting a stalker know their whereabouts, while only 32% of men expressed a similar concern.

Older mobile users (ages 40+) were more also more generally concerned about the risks of location-based services (LBS) than those aged 18 to 29.

Love/Hate Relationship with Geolocation?

What’s interesting about this data is that even though there were concerns among many of those surveyed, 39% said they did use geolocation services on their mobile devices, and 29% even shared their location with people other than their friends. 1 in 9 used a location-based tool to meet a stranger either digitally or in real-life, presumably with applications like Skout, the location-based dating app that just hit 1 million users.

Are people simultaneously embracing and fearing this new technology? It appears so.

On the one hand, using new services like the location-based social networking apps Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite, Loopt and others can be fun – even rewarding to some extent, thanks to partnerships with businesses that result in mobile coupons and discounts, for example. Plus, users of these services can trade online tips with friends, suggesting things like the best entrée to order at a local restaurant, the bartender to ask for at local hotspot, the best time of day to visit a local attraction and so on. In fact, 67% of the users of location-based services said they did so in order to “get informed.” Other top uses including meeting up with friends (43%), meeting new people (13.9%) and playing games (8.7%).

But even though there are many benefits to using an LBS-type application, clearly there are fears as well. These concerns may rise from people’s lack of understanding about how accessible their data is or how it’s being used.

Protecting Your Privacy: The Same Old List of Do’s and Don’ts

To protect yourself from the “dangers” of using location-based mobile apps, Webroot provided some common sense advice: Be aware of your smartphone’s settings (Is it OK for this app to access your location? Are your photos being geotagged?); never post anything you wouldn’t want the world to see; restrict access to personal data by using privacy settings provided within an app; only friend your real friends; read the app’s privacy policy before using and don’t blindly click links.

Does any of that sound familiar? This advice isn’t any different, really, from what security professionals have advised users to do for years, most recently regarding the proper use of Facebook (especially given that network’s new agenda to discard user privacy in order to be a more public network).

Despite these recommendations – which, at this point, sound like a broken record – many people continue to use social networks in what some would consider “risky” ways. 76% of users reported they clicked links posted by friends and 31% said they accepted strangers’ friend requests.

At the end of the day, it seems that putting the onus on the user to mind their behavior isn’t going to be the best solution for maintaining privacy and security while using social networking sites, be them online or geo-targeted. And frankly, it never is.

Instead, the location-based services themselves should be careful to have appropriate security polices and procedures in place so their users’ private data – most importantly, their physical location – isn’t shared with anyone but specifically those who have been given access.

For more about why and how people use location-based social networking services, please read “Why We Check In: The Reasons People Use Location-Based Social Networks.”

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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