But first, why do we do this?
Apps use geolocation to let you know when a friend is in the vicinity—and, similarly, to let others know when you’re around. With geolocation, you can find out what restaurants are nearby, how far away they are, and even get step-by-step directions. Facebook, Foursquare, and Swarm allow (and incentivize) users to “check-in” to locations they visit—letting the world know they’re at a concert or enjoying that new restaurant everyone’s been buzzing about. Mobile games are also increasingly leveraging geolocation technology to create an immersive experience for players, dynamically engaging them as they move about physical space. And, while a picture says a thousand words, sharing a picture or video you’ve taken with your smartphone or digital camera may be “saying” more than you think. Embedded within the digital image could be information identifying precisely where you were and when—your geo-tag. These seemingly innocuous actions help us feel connected to the world, people, and events around us.
Sounds fun, why worry?
This may be harmless information to share much of the time, but consider this: could someone learn where your house is? Could someone discover that you’re out of town? And could someone figure out where you’re hiking alone? Yes, yes, and yes. There’s a very real risk associated with allowing this data to be captured and shared. Participating in playful “checking-in” activities leaves a digital trail of your behavior, giving away a record of your interests, activities, and areas of operation; e.g., every morning you stop at a local coffeehouse as you walk to the courthouse—and may even reveal a pattern that can be used to predict your future activities.
The explosively popular Pokémon Go, in which users hunt for cartoon monsters encountered in specific locations in the real world, provides a cautionary tale. After only a few days on the market, this game was specifically used to cause harm—taking advantage of the fact that players focused on the game are unlikely to be paying particularly close attention to their surroundings. Real monsters were able to exploit this system, luring unsuspecting players to secluded areas and robbing them at gunpoint.
Bottom line—take care before you share.
Although sharing your location information can enhance your mobile app experience, balance the benefits you may receive with the potential risks. Consider the following precautions when using these services:
- Disable unwanted geolocation services. Be sure to check the privacy settings for each of your apps that uses geolocation (and geotagging), and disable any location broadcasts you don’t want—there’s no need to provide the public with your own personal homing beacon.
- Think twice before allowing access. When you start a mobile app or visit a website that you haven’t already allowed to access your location information, you will usually get a pop-up: “This app wants to access to your location. Allow?” Make a smart decision based on where you are and what might be done with your location information. After all, once you share it, how it’s used is pretty much out of your control.
- Opt-out of checking-in. If there’s no compelling reason to check-in to a location—don’t.
- Delay posting to social media. Wait until you get home to post about your activities or share photos to your social media accounts, especially if you’ll be away from home for an extended time.