Geo-located web services and activities have significant hidden dangers

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I have serious reservations about any geo-located web-based activity; this includes new geographically-aware social media sites FourSquare and Gowalla, several iPhone apps, and even several more Facebook apps.

When trawling through gadget sites Engadget and Gizmodo, I’m always surprised by the volume of user comments demanding geo-tagging services, particularly with a view to geo-tagging all photography, so that when you post it online, it already carries the location data of where the picture was taken.

You may have caught a Facebook-related story a couple of years ago - about an American blogger who posted numerous photographs of his new flat - which had amazing views out of every window. Soon after he moved in, he decided to take a month long vacation in Hawaii, all the while blogging on his activities and present location. When he returned home, he was in for rather a major shock... Enterprising burglars had triangulated the location of his flat from the photographs posted, and proceeded to clean-out the flat when the owner was reliably absent for an extended period. This is not an isolated incident, there are all kinds of activity-related opportunistic crimes which take place. Another example of this in the UK is the spate of burglaries at the villas and mansions of leading Premiership football players - whilst they are absent at away games.

In this modern digital age, Identity theft is rife, and criminals are ever more switched on to the Internet - taking advantage of any information and data they might glean. It follows therefore that it is in your best interests not to make it easy for said suspect parties to be able to discover your exact wherabouts.

For me, personal privacy is paramount, and an increasingly important part of privacy is where you’re at! Why would anyone go about advertising that they are absent from their main domicile? - Yet thousands do.

FourSquare and Gowalla claim all kinds of security measures, as does Facebook - about maintaining privacy data, and not sharing location information with anyone unauthorised. On my iPhone however, every other app I activate wants my permission to grab my location data. Of course certain recommendations services cannot work without this information. I am very mindful though of who and what I give access to and notice of my current location.

The majority of regular Facebook users are teenagers and students - most of whom don’t own their own homes, and as such, location sharing does not necessarily have a major downside. For any home owners who take extended vacations though, you need to be very careful about your online activities; this does not just include geo-tagging though. If you are a regular blogger, opportunists can notice changes in your pattern of blogging - and extrapolate whether you are on vacation, and whether you might be likely abroad.

Be careful is all I’m saying really, if you have concerns about using any of these technologies feel free to create an online alias or pseudonym to cover your tracks, or else just stay clear of anything which gives you anxiety. I am fascinated to see how these technologies will evolve, and what the longer-term outcomes will be, both good and ill ...

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