Smartphone's Tracking Geodata May Be as Personal as Your DNA

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Lawmakers in Europe are concentrating their efforts on one aspect of online privacy that may be being overlooked in the rush to "check in" everywhere, and are suggesting your real-time (and historic) geo-tracking data may be as personal as DNA.

Digital privacy is seriously in the spotlight at the moment—and in the U.S. a grand jury is even investigating third-party smartphone apps to make sure they're being up-front with users about the kinds of personal data they're sharing. This kind of high-level legal attention is a challenge to the kind of contentious position on the definition of "privacy" in our digital age that's being pushed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and which apps like Google Latitude and fun- and prize-centric systems like Foursquare deftly ignore. In fact, the geolocation element of these last two examples has lawmakers in Denmark very concerned.

According to a paper in the International Journal of Law by legal scholar Pernille Wegener Jessen, governments around the world are seriously trailing the cutting edge of technology in terms of laws that protect their citizens. In particular, the lack of a reliable, agreed definition of what constitutes "private" or "sensitive" data on an individual means it's harder to legislate in this area. Jessen's particularly concerned about real-time data on an individual's location—be it transmitted "live" or present as a recorded history of someone's various journeys.

The concern is that if you combine tracking data with a database of venues and locations (perhaps such as the one that Foursqure is putting together) it's possible to extrapolate deep data about a person's habits even if they choose not to "broadcast" their visit, for example, to a Hooters. Even anonymized data is dangerous, Jessen notes, because it could be relatively simple to deduce a person's identity from their habits. Personally-tailored advertising may be something that consumers could prefer—but Jessen's concerns are that advertisers may peep too deeply into people's location habits (and it's easy to imagine that a potential employer who's prepared to vet you on the basis of your Facebook profile may also discriminate against you based on the number of times you check in at a local bar). 

Jessen's suggestion is that the potential for privacy abuses of geodata should be considered on a par to DNA data by lawmakers and governments when drawing up their legislation. The race is on for governments to legislate user privacy protections in this domain before it becomes a social norm to transmit your location willy nilly.

Image via Flickr, under Creative Commons license.

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