Location Data Privacy

The Elephant in the Room
By The Location Forum | Published May 11, 2012

This an abridged version of the article. The full article will be published in the Spring 2012 Digital Issue of LBx Journal. Published with permission of The Location Forum.

When it comes to privacy, there are basically two ends of the spectrum: Those who are in the “sharing culture” who act and behave in a very open manner, and those who feel privacy is a “protected right” and find any intrusion to be offensive. But, privacy is more complicated than that.

In the Information Economy in which we live, personal data and similar forms of information are the currencies. And location data is the universal link between all data, because everything and everyone is somewhere – which means your business is already using location data in some manner, either passively or strategically.

The power, benefits, and risks associated with location data are in its capacity to infer more than the face value of the original information. One can derive many things from location that are not obvious on the surface and that’s what makes location data unique from all other data.

From a business perspective, this makes location data both a valuable asset to leverage but also, a hypersensitive issue with both customers and employees (not to mention regulators who are taking an ever-increasing interest). Here are some stunning facts about location data followed by the major reasons why location data privacy should matter to you and your company.

The Scope

To the casual observer, location data is a narrow issue. People only become aware of it when they look up driving directions, zoom in on their house in Google Earth or Bing, see a request to use their location on their smartphone or perhaps when they see a targeted ad pop up on a social media site. But it goes much deeper than most people realize.

  • The collection of location information has been expensive, labor intensive, and manual for hundreds of years. The difference today is the scale at which location data is being automated and continuously collected, aggregated, and shared beyond the original intent of the collection of the information. There are 4.6 billion cell phones on the planet with continuous location tracking capabilities, 800 million Facebook users, 200 million Twitter users, and 2.1 billion Internet users. 


  • M2M (machine to machine) communications including sensor networks, smart grid, telematics, eHealth and other applications, is huge and growing rapidly. It’s estimated there will be 50 billion connected devices by the year 2020. All of these are contributing (and sharing) dynamic location information with other networks, devices, and applications – some simply by being switched on, others in response to a query and others as a function of the application (i.e. social media).


  • There are 4.2 million public surveillance cameras in the UK and millions more around the globe.  DigitalGlobe, the largest commercial satellite imagery provider, collects close to 2 million square kilometers of the globe per day. Google StreetView has collected tens of millions of images since it was launched in 2007 (plus they have collected and stored personal wifi data in the process). Mobile operators and device makers (for example Apple, Motorola (now owned by Google), Nokia, Samsung) are developing location databases using CarrierIQ or other tracking software (these are generally used for operational and customer service objectives).


  • Google just changed its privacy policy to more efficiently correlate personal data across its over 60 products. Twitter sold 2 years’ worth of Tweets. In 2006, 1.2 million photos on Flickr were geo-tagged in the first 24 hours. Today, that number is in the billions.


  • Access to an individual’s or organization’s location information is unprecedented. Demographic data that was compiled from product registrations, surveys, and census information used to be expensive and available only to large organizations. (While census data is free, correlating it and making sense of it takes time and is usually the domain of data aggregators.) While information collected by the government such as tax records, property records, campaign contributions and the like (which all contain location information) have always been publicly available, having to physically go to the government agency and fill out paperwork just to view the document created a significant barrier. Today, almost anyone can obtain these records online without any clear governance around how that data should be used.

Combine all this with the cheap cost of data storage, widespread access to high-performance computing and a vibrant data aggregation and analytics industry capable of synthesizing reams of publicly available demographic data, and it’s easy to see that the scale of location information is enormous. And the distribution of this information is potentially even larger.


The Applications & Benefits

While the above facts and the scale of location data collection are concerning, it is equally important to note the benefits of being able to quickly and efficiently collect, aggregate, and share location data.

Improved Customer Service and Customer Experience: Companies like MGM Grand Casino and Hotel have installed WiFi networks in their casino to provide a better customer experience to their guests in terms of ability to be connected to the Internet.  What they found was that when guests accessed the WiFi network they could develop a better understanding of guest behavior within the casino and could then provide a better experience by providing targeted announcements of events, discounts, and relevant offerings nearby.

The ability to remotely diagnose and solve mobile phone problems and determine whether they are network-based or device-based is the result of location tracking software installed on the device (which became the subject of much media attention)

Reconciling the business needs and risks with the development of location-based technologies, products, and services that do not infringe upon the privacy rights of individuals will require a comprehensive approach in which all the players in the ecosystem/value-chain agree.

Emergency Response: Most government agencies around the world operate in silos.  This means that they don’t share information easily.  In emergency situations such Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the Japanese Tsunami in 2011, the consequences are deadly. 

Without location information, how would emergency responders be dispatched to answer your e911 call?

Instant Information: Access to relevant information has never been easier. Voice recognition software combined with location data allows you to ask Siri on your iPhone “where is the closest eye doctor?”

Commercial real estate companies, real estate developers, and retailers can now instantly develop a multi-dimensional profile of an area of interest for investment and operational purposes. (What used to take weeks of market analysis, now takes minutes and even seconds depending on the complexity of the query.)

Supply Chain Disruptions: With applications such as Bloomberg’s BMAP for commodities (which aggregates over 200,000 location-based datasets), financial analysts, traders, and organizations have increased visibility into supply-chain disruptions for oil and agricultural commodities, which can make or break business performance objectives.

Personalized Services: Access to mobile location data enables the development and delivery of personalized services from “find me, follow me” services such as personal tracking (kids, elderly, pets, assets), personalized news based on location, and product, health, and emergency alerts (push notifications) based on location.

There are many more known applications and benefits, and frankly even more unknown benefits yet to be discovered. With millions of developers – professional and amateurs, from those working for Fortune 500 companies to those coding in garages – thousands of location-based applications are being developed every day for a number of different reasons, from for-profit motivations to betterment of mankind reasons, to simply because they can. 


The Situation

The scale and pace at which location information collection, aggregation, and sharing is unfolding is all happening without any clear boundaries around the use of the data. Complicating matters is the fact that most people don’t understand the value of location information the way they understand the value of personal financial or medical information. This skews the debate towards whether location information should be collected or shared in the first place rather than discussing how and when it’s appropriate (and the corresponding privacy issues). 

While location information has been collected for years, it has generally been collected for specific purposes and by organizations that were not selling location-based products and services. In other words, the location data or personal data itself was not the revenue generator. Today with the advent of “freemium” services, whole businesses and industries exist for the sole purpose of selling personal data, and that includes location data.


The Location Forum

The Location Forum is the premier business leadership association representing the interests of the location industry. It is at the forefront of developing guidelines and best practices to fill the void in lack of location data privacy governance, including working on a location data privacy pledge. With members from across the value chain including mobile operators, device makers, software developers, data aggregators, service providers and users, the Forum is uniquely positioned to address these issues.

As part of their comprehensive approach, the Forum will be publishing a detailed Primer on Location Data Privacy in May that will include a thorough examination of the issue including comprehensive definitions, privacy infringement triggers, inference, anonymization, risk and utility, access rights and ownership and more. This will be followed by a full set of Guidelines and Best Practices in July.