Hiding Your Location Information
By Carlo Longino, Tue Jan 20 17:30:00 GMT 2004

Bell Labs says it's developed a piece of network software that will let mobile users define how -- and to whom -- their location is disclosed. But does it go far enough, and will it keep your coordinates out of the hands of the people you most don't want to have it?


The reasearchers say their software allows for personalized, rules-based disclosure of information without bogging down the mobile network. For instance, you could set it so that your wife could always pinpoint your location, while other users could only track you within 15 miles, or make you invisible between certain hours, and so on.

TheFeature users debated the implications of showing off your location in a thread from one of Howard Rheingold's articles on location-aware devices, privacy, and user interfaces, and to a lesser extent in a post on "presence". The general desire seemed to be for control, and while this system is certainly better than a simple on/off switch and far better than not being able to control your location information at all, is it enough?

I want people like the police, fire department, and paramedics to be able to locate me with great accuracy should I make an emergency call from my mobile. But I don't want the police to be able to track my movements on a whim. I might want to broadcast my location to my friends at certain times, but not most of the time. I also don't want anyone I don't know to be able to track my location at all (I can just imagine thieves useing location services to see when someone leaves their home or office, then striking when the coast is clear), but I want it to be easy to add people to my trusted list.

It sounds like this Bell Labs software could handle this, but I'm not sure I'm comfortable with all this information residing within my carrier's network. I of course realize it's the most logical place for it, but is there a better way to store this information, with a trusted third party, or in the handset itself? Storing the information in the handset would seem to be best -- should your handset get separated from you, the location information then becomes worthless to anyone trying to track you, the person, but can help you locate your device.

I'm still not sure that I'm convinced enough of the benefits of offering up my location to overcome my fears of how this information could be abused, and I think a lot of "average" people probably feel the same way. And I worry that this type of control system may be too complex to catch on with those people as well. But is something like this the best we can hope for, or do we just need to see better location-based applications to convince us of the value of letting people see where we are?