Location-Based Services: Controversy at Every Level

Your smartphone can be a beacon telling the world where you are, with increasing precision. Is that good commerce or bad privacy, or maybe a bit of both?

By Lamont Wood
Tue, January 21, 2014

Computerworld — Jody Stevenson doesn't know she's been using location-based technology -- and doesn't care.

"I've been having a ball for almost a year," says the New Jersey homemaker. She enhances her shopping experiences with a service called Shopkick, which gives her loyalty points (convertible to gift cards and cash) just for walking into a participating store.

Any meaningful retailer has some effort in this space underway. Charles Golvin, retail analyst

Or, rather, an app on her smartphone (if she has remembered to invoke it) decides that it is inside a participating store, and rewards her with loyalty points (called "kicks"); the amount varies by individual store and the promotional policies of that store. She also gets varying points for scanning bar codes of specific merchandise, whether she buys the items or not.

Overall, location-based services use three different levels of accuracy -- vicinity to within a block or two (derived from GPS coordinates), presence (establishing that you are inside a given building or store) and department (pinpointing your location within a given store).

Shopkick makes use of the presence level, primarily; it's also the level that's demonstrating the most commercial success and producing the most fears about Big Brother-style surveillance.

Vicinity

With modern smartphones able to locate themselves using the GPS satellite network, applications that allow multiple users to compare their locations for specific purposes are becoming well established.

Here on Biz, a mobile app, locates nearby business people one might be interested in meeting, based on their social media entries.

"I was in Chicago for a client meeting and was interested in meeting with the people in a large firm located there," recalls Garen Mareno, director of strategic partnerships for a design firm in Los Angeles. So he consulted his Here On Biz app, which locates nearby businesspeople he might be interested in meeting, based on their social media entries.

"When I got there, many people from that firm popped up on my Here On Biz radar. I was able to set up drinks and make that first step. Another time I was in Russia and was able to reach out to colleagues I did not know were there," Mareno recalls.

The main controversy at the vicinity level appears to involve the question of whether to display the results on a map, since doing so would seem to allow, or even promote, stalking.

"We refuse to do mapping; we think it's a security issue," says Nick Smoot, one of the founders of Here On Biz.

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