At lunch last week, location-based privacy came up. I actively opt in to a monitoring service, which gets me a discount on insurance for a vehicle I own. My counterpart stated that they would never agree to anything of the sort because of the inherent breach of personal privacy and security. I responded that the privacy statement explicitly reads that the device does not contain GPS, nor does the company track the vehicle’s location. But even if the privacy statement said the opposite – should I care? Is location directly tied to some aspect of my life that might negatively impact me? And ultimately is security really tied to privacy in this context?

In a paper by Janice Tsai, Who’s Viewed You? The Impact of Feedback in a Mobile Location-Sharing Application (PDF) the abstract’s last line states, “…our study suggests that peer opinion and technical savviness contribute most to whether or not participants thought they would continue to use a mobile location technology.” This makes sense as I would self-qualify my ability to understand the technology enough to be able to control and measure the level of exposure I may create. Although the paper’s focus is ultimately on the feedback (or lack thereof) that these location-based services provide, it still contains interesting information. The thing that most intrigued me is that it never actually correlated privacy to security. I expected there to be a definitive point where users complained about being less secure somehow because they were being tracked. But nothing like that appeared.

I continued on my journey, looking to tie location-based privacy to security, and ran across another paper with a more promising title: “Location-Based Services and the Privacy-Security Dichotomy” by K. Michael, L. Perusco, and M. G. Michael. The paper provides much more warning of “security compromise” and “privacy risk”, but the problem remains – again, this paper doesn’t provide any hard evidence of how these location-based services actually create a security risk. In fact it’s more the opposite – they state that if we are willing to give up privacy, then our personal security may be increased. The authors mention the obvious risks, including lack of control and data leakage, but at this point, I’m still unsatisfied and have yet to find a clear understanding of how or why using a location-based service might ultimately make me less secure. So maybe it’s simply not so, and perhaps the real problem is outlined in section 3.2 of the paper: “The Human Need for Autonomy”.

Let’s be honest – it’s more psychological than anything with a placeholder for obvious exceptions, the most notable being stalker scenarios that are linked to domestic abuse of sorts. Even in this scenario it may be a stretch to say that location-based services are really the root cause of decreased personal security. Sure an angry ex may guess or even know a password to a webmail account and skim location data from communications, but the same could be done by lock picking a place of residence and stealing a daily planner. It’s a particular area that can easily be argued from either side because of different interpretations of what it is in the end.

We’d like to think that nobody is tracking us, but we all carry mobile phones, we’re all recorded daily by countless cameras, we all badge in at work using RFID, we all swipe payment cards, and we all use the Internet (I’m generalizing “we” based on content distribution here, but flame if you must). The addition of things like Google Latitude, Skyhook Wireless, and Yahoo! Fire Eagle are adding a level of usability but in the grand scheme of things do they really impact your personal security? Probably not. In the meantime, my fellow netizens, we can at least make light of the situation while we discuss what it is and isn’t. It’s a place, no matter where we are, that can mockingly be referred to as: Oceania – because try as you might, someone is watching.