In search of LBS accountability

16 Oct 2008
00:00

Location-based services are taking center stage again as GPS becomes an increasingly standard feature on high-end handsets - the GPS capability of the iPhone alone has produced a number of new LBS apps. Little wonder that market forecasts for virtually every category of LBS that exists are optimistic.

However, you still can't talk about LBS without talking about the privacy implications. Last month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that some Australian companies are fitting company cars with GPS devices to track their mobile workforce, which privacy experts and workers unions say is a violation of privacy.

Fleet management is one of the oldest LBS apps on the market, and the value proposition to employers is not a hard sell. The benefits include cost savings by ensuring honest overtime and fuel expense claims, and preventing moonlighting and vehicle theft. It's also touted as a safety app for employees in case they're lost or involved in an accident.

The problem, critics claim, is that employers don't always switch off the tracker during off-duty hours. A Telstra employee committed suicide in March allegedly because he was depressed that his company was constantly watching him and didn't trust him.

That's an extreme example, of course, and one that's arguably a separate issue from consumer-based LBS apps, as fleet management is not an opt-in scenario. But it highlights one of the key challenges of LBS: effective privacy management.

LBS is at heart a game of trust. For all the benefits of LBS that can convince users to opt-in, there's no getting around the fact that, at face value, the ability to be tracked by wireless networks sounds scary to a lot of people. Consumers want assurances that the LBS service provider can be trusted with the tracking data they collect, whether it's for tracking family members, mapping social networks, geotagging pictures or letting advertisers push relevant content to your phone.

Where's your data‾

Everyone in the LBS value chain says that privacy is a top priority for them and that they recognize the issues and challenges. For example, WaveMarket - which specializes in LBS solutions aimed at family/friend tracking and asset management - has begun actively marketing Veriplace, an auditing tool that adds a privacy layer onto LBS. In essence, it allows carriers to set location policy guidelines for companies and kick violators off the LBS network, while end-users have additional control over who gets to track them.

That's a good start, but there's a crucial element missing from the LBS equation that consumers also need: some kind of legal recourse when the controls fail.

Take the ever-growing problem of personal data leaks. LBS service providers sit on a ton of location-aware user data. What happens if that data is lost or stolen and posted on a P2P public folder‾ Most likely the same thing that happens with other data loss cases - a lot of bad publicity for the offending company or agency, but little in the way of penalties.

This varies from market to market, but in Asia Pacific, only seven governments - Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan - have laws governing privacy and data protection, according to consulting firm Galexia. And in most cases they apply to people who steal data and/or practice ID theft, not the company or agency responsible for keeping the data safe.

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