Friday, May 28, 2010

Geo-Fencing, Location Privacy & Other Animals

Privacy has been, is and will remain one of the most hotly debated issues within both the web and mobile domains for time to come. Only last week, a probe by German, French, Spanish and Italian authorities gathered steam as fears of Google's Streetview data-gathering exercise appeared to have breached several national privacy rules.

The debate has many dimensions: what should be in the 'public' domain? Where does the trade-off lie between the benefits of increased sharing of information and the risks of over-sharing?

Erick Schonfeld writing in TechCrunch today provides an interesting summary of what Google's, Foursquare's and Facebook's take on the location privacy issue is.

I completely agree with Facebook's VP of Product, Chris Cox, who described a future where phones are "contextually aware" so that they can "check into flights, find deals at gorcery stores and do other things for us at that right place, at the right time". Importantly “The phone should know what we want.”

In my book on Building Location-Aware Applications (with co-author Murat Aktihanoglu), I describe this as the 'Contextual Holy Grail', with context providing the 'intelligent' added element to Presence and Location.

As handsets get smarter, the whole area of 'sensory perception' will also allow predictive services to be delivered to the handset -for example, a handset that can detect your stress levels and location, will be able to recommend an Aromatherapy store nearby.

Geo-fencing allows users to draw virtual fences around neighbourhoods or locations that either you want to maintain as private or public. This helps give users control over the location service and set their desired privacy levels. As greater automation of location services come on stream (checking-in your location really is too cumbersome for most people), geo-fencing will provide a useful way to strike the right privacy balance in a smarter way.