A location service, also known as location-based service, is an information service that uses technology to find the geographic location of a device.
Location services use technology such as Global Positioning Technology (GPS) and wireless networks to identify where the user is geographically. The location services may be used to find people, other devices such as mobile phones, or services such as ATMs. They have been used by businesses for promotions and marketing or product tracking. In a more serious situation such as a natural disaster a location service can allow users to coordinate an aid activity.
These services can be fun and useful, but it is important to be aware of the potential risks associated with disclosing your whereabouts online. Fortunately, there are some simple precautions that will reduce the chances of this information being misused.
How does it work?
Location services are any service or application used on a communications device that identifies or makes use of that device’s geographic position. Location services can be downloaded onto smartphones and tablets and allow users to locate nearby facilities (such as ATM’s or restaurants), get directions or check-in. Common technologies involved in the provision of location services include:
- Global Positioning System (GPS)
- triangulation provided by mobile phone networks
- location provided by consumer Wi-Fi devices.
All three methods are implemented in modern mobile devices to give the most accurate location possible in a timely manner. In addition, some services—such as social networking—use registration at a known location by the user – check-in’s.
Why use a location-based service?
Location services provide information when it is needed and where it is needed. The most commonly used location services are those which provide users with directions, or information about their location such as quickest route to the nearest train station.
For some users, a location service is a way of meeting new people with shared interests and keeping in touch with friends. It can broaden personal and social interaction by matching a user with a place, event or local group. Some location services such as Foursquare include a game element where the user earns points for every ‘check-in’ at a new location and is rewarded with badges.
Location services can also interconnect with other popular social networking services such as Twitter and Facebook allowing users to share their location with friends.
While useful and fun, there can be safety and security risks when using location services. So it pays to be cautious about how much information you disclose.
Security and Safety - Publicising whereabouts
Publicising your physical location can be risky. If you publicise that you are not at home, you could present a security risk for your home or a safety risk for your family.
Privacy - Publicising personal information
When you use location services you are sharing information about your location. Other personal information may also be collected, such as your gender, age or contact list. Information collected by a location service may also be shared with advertisers or data collection organisations with which the location service has business dealings.
When you ‘check-in’ you may be making public or giving other users an impression of your personal and social patterns, for example your favourite destinations and places you frequent, affiliations and memberships, likes and dislikes.
Telling other users what your social patterns are may enable you to meet like-minded people, however it can have unintended consequences. For example, people you don’t expect may follow your movements.
Remember that you are providing personal information about yourself that is searchable and stored indefinitely. What you make available now may prove detrimental in the future.
- When you’re applying for a job or being considered for a promotion, would you want it known that you ‘checked-in’ 10 times from 10 different pubs in one night?
- If you’re applying for a loan, would you want it known that you won $1,000 dollars at the roulette table at one casino but lost $5,000 at another gambling spot in one night?
- If you meet that potential partner, would you want it known that you were ‘mayor’ of the local pub? (perhaps not so serious but possibly damning).
Precautions - Safety and security measures
You can protect yourself by minimising the amount of information you disclose. As the user, you should decide when, how often and how much detail you provide.
- information collection settings for location services you are using. Ask your location service what privacy and security controls are available on your service, or check the terms and conditions to see what information is being collected and how it is shared. If you don’t like what is being done and there is no opt-out mechanism give serious consideration to not using it.
- Review your device settings. You can change your device settings such as which apps have access to location information. It is a good idea to monitor and review settings and permissions regularly. Not every app that wants access to your location information needs it.
- Set appropriate privacy settings to control who sees your information.. As a default, with some location services, everything the user does is accessible through a website to everyone who users the service. This information can be searched anonymously by anyone who accesses the website. However, you can use privacy settings to control who sees what. Under the ‘privacy’ setting, some location services have levels such as ‘hidden’ (completely hiding your post), ‘city’ (just showing the vicinity) and ‘exact’ (even with this setting you decide how much detail you provide).
- Give serious consideration to opting-out. Opt-out of location services and use do-not track options on smartphones and browsers where available. If you start to feel uncomfortable or no longer want the service, there are a number of ways you can stop or delete your account. Location-based services allow you to do this directly from your profile by clicking on a link or by sending an email or a text directly to the service.
- Report inappropriate activity. Some location services have a facility which allows you to report inappropriate activity which can be done online or by contacting the service directly.
- ‘Check-in’ just before leaving a location. If it’s the points or badges you’re after rather than meeting up with others, ‘check-in’ just prior to leaving a spot so that you are not found at the location you’ve just left. Remember that you are still providing information about your recent whereabouts.
- Don’t share details. If you’re not sure if what you post is too much information or if it may be going to a wider audience, don’t share it!
Tips for parents of children and teenagers
Location-based services can be a great social and entertainment resource for teenagers but may not be appropriate for younger children. If deemed inappropriate or unsafe, turn off the GPS facility.
Here are some tips for parents to promote safe use by teenagers:
What parents can DO
- Join in. Engage in a game while talking to your child about safety and security and how children can protect themselves.
- Set rules. Compile a set of rules that must be followed. Do this in consultation with your child. For example, permission must be given before using the location-based service and permission must be sought before ‘checking-in’. Another good rule is no use of a location-based service is allowed unless parents are there to supervise.
- Supervise your child. Make sure your child’s use of a location-based service is visible to you. Gauge all activity on a location-based service.
- Make a list of people who can receive information (the ‘allowed list’). For example, the list might contain only family members and close friends.
- Check settings. Make sure that settings have been set to private to control who sees what or how much of it is seen. It is a good idea to monitor and review settings and change passwords regularly.
- Develop a written agreement. It might be useful to devise a joint agreement with your child that outlines the rules and consequences of non compliance.
What parents can TEACH their children
- Encourage your child to talk about anything they come across through use of a location-based service that makes them feel uncomfortable or scared. (Note: Children may not talk about negative experiences if they think they may be banned from using the location-based service. So discuss an appropriate action).
- Explain the danger of providing information to people online they don’t know, and that it would be like talking to a stranger in the street. So, no socialising through a location-based service unless supervised or it is on the ‘allowed list’. Passwords should never be given out. Explain that it is like giving someone the key to the front door.
- Teach children and teens responsibility. Help them understand that as users, they are responsible for the type and amount of information they reveal in location-based networking.
- Teach children and teens about consequences. For example, the consequence of non-compliance of the rules may be the reduction or suspension of participation in the location-based service. Another example of teaching about consequences is to explain that if you give too much information online about whereabouts, you could be putting your safety at risk.
It is important to let children and teens know that if they encounter uncomfortable or frightening situations as a result of using location-based services, that they can come to you for help. There is also help through young people’s helplines that parents as well as children and teens can access if something goes wrong.
Where to go for help
For general help and advice about kids’ safety online call the Cybersafety Contact Centre – 1800 880 176. The Kids Helpline can provide additional help and support for young people – call them on 1800 551 800 or contact them online at www.kidshelp.com.au.
The ACMA has further detailed information about how location services work and what they do available in its paper Here there and everywhere: Consumer behaviour and location services.