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Location Aware Browsing

You are sitting in a park browsing the web in order to find a good Chinese restaurant in the area.  Your browser requests permission to track your location.  Do you click on “Allow” or “Don’t Allow”?  Before you pick either, consider what you are permitting or refusing. 

Geolocation is the process of identifying the real-world geographic location of a subject or object.   iPhone and Android phones support two methods of figuring out where a person is located.  The first triangulates the user’s position based on relative proximity to the cellular towers operated by the phone carrier.  This method is fast and does not require dedicated GPS hardware, but it does not locate the user very specifically.  The second method uses dedicated GPS hardware.  The hardware “talks” to satellites orbiting the earth and can pinpoint the user’s location quite accurately.   The geolocation API allows the user to share his or her location with certain trusted websites.  Geolocation uses a combination of the user’s IP address, wireless location, the nearest cell phone tower’s coordinates, and dedicated GPS hardware.

Many people think this pinpointing of a person's location and the subsequent user-targeted production of information is invaluable.  For many users, though, privacy outweighs any potential benefit.  Yes, geolocation is an opt-in feature, so your browser should never force you to reveal your location.  Still, many think this is insufficient protection for users.  The argument is that that location information should be protected not only against websites but also against location service providers.  And despite the fact that they are opt-in, even if the user agrees to one site using their location information, they may not have given permission for it to be used by another - yet it is possible for this data to migrate into Facebook or Twitter, for example.  Moreover, it is easy to lose track of the amount and type of information you might be giving away and who has access to that information.  Information you would not mind your close friends having can migrate to a much wider and more anonymous group. 

 Those that support the use of geolocation in web browsing argue that location aware browsing is for the benefit of the person browsing.  Firefox, for example, stated that it tracks locations so the user “can find info that’s more relevant and more useful.”  Once a website “knows” where you are and what you seek, it can tailor advertisements to the search.  So, if I’m in Redmond, WA, looking for that Chinese food, the web browser will automatically post ads and links for Redmond Chinese restaurants.  Maybe this sounds great to you.  You have nothing to hide and you like the idea that the web will be more responsive to what you want. 

But wait – it gets more creepy or helpful, based on your viewpoint.  You can, for example, coordinate your location with a train schedule so that your phone beeps at the proper railroad station as you are riding.  Another application might broadcast your location on social media to friends in that area so you can meet for drinks – or get caught somewhere you were not supposed to be. 

This technology obviously has many potentially positive uses beyond looking for a good meal.  Location aware applications can connect geo-tagged resources to students performing research.  Security officials can respond to requests to monitor someone’s progress to ensure safe arrival.  Citizen environmentalism allows people can report to report specific environmental concerns as they see them happen rather than trying to build a case ex post facto. 

On the other hand, do you really want your ex-boyfriend's son to know that you were at the aquarium last Saturday afternoon?  Is it worth it to find a sports bra 30 seconds faster if by doing so you feed a corporation's advertising accuracy?    

A last element to consider is whether the user is capable of discerning what may or may not be information they want to share.  An computer literate adult might be quite comfortable with the photos, news, and personal information they post online.  This gets a lot more dubious when, say, a 12-year-old girl is involved.  It is important to consider users of all types when assessing whether web feature is actually progress.