Location-Tracking Apps: Friendly or Creepy?

Location-Tracking Apps: Friendly or Creepy?

Apps that automatically broadcast people’s whereabouts are gaining popularity, but underscore social networks’ power to compromise privacy.

Apps such as Highlight, Glancee, Sonar and Banjo drew acclaim at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival last week, highlighting the growing trend towards “ambient social networking.” Like Foursquare, these apps focus on check-ins and connecting with people nearby, but unlike Foursquare, these apps check in automatically, using location tracking.

Highlight alerts users to other people with similar interests in the same vicinity. The app culls information from Facebook pages to create short profiles, and finds mutual friends and listed hobbies in common. Glancee is similar but focuses more on interests than Facebook overlaps, while Banjo and Sonar analyze friend lists on other social networks and map those friends’ locations.

Privacy is a tricky topic for mobile technology — lawmakers and citizens are up in arms about Google’s policy changes, Apple’s snafu with third-party apps collecting personal information, and Carrier IQ’s potential covert data gathering.

Yet the most buzzed-about apps at SXSW centered on programs that automatically broadcast personal information to users in a particular location, in attempts to create serendipity and community. Users can turn off these apps, but if left unnoticed they will continue to announce the user’s location and intuit their activities.

Highlight promoted its service at the festival, declaring, “We want Highlight to make Austin even more fun for you — by surprising you with hidden connections, surfacing information about the people you meet, and helping you remember these people when you bump into them at a random New York coffee shop a year later.”

The apps help people reconnect with old friends and discover potential concert buddies and latte dates by linking up people with shared interests. At best, they foster a sense of community, which is appealing for people looking for a sense of connection.

These services, however, strip away anonymity, leaving users continually primed for awkward conversations with fellow Arcade Fire enthusiasts or old prom dates.

It might be nice to know an old teammate is right around the corner, but the programs let both friends and strangers pinpoint users’ exact locations, leading to potentially unnerving situations. The apps’ success could lie in how well they negotiate users’ desires for both connection and privacy.

If these apps gain popularity, users will voluntarily agree to location tracking and information sharing, even as attempts to curb these functions continue for other programs. Widespread adoption of these services could have unintended consequences, for example, by creating a digital trail of a person’s whereabouts, which could fall into the hands of others.

The Rutgers bullying trial demonstrated how important social media is becoming to investigations and convictions. Location-tracking apps could become another tool for prosecutors and defense attorneys alike, backing up or shredding alibis.

Early adopters enjoyed using these apps at SXSW, and if the festival’s track record is any indication, at least one of these programs will gain mainstream attention in the near future, showing that for some groups, increased connectivity via social media is taking increasing precedence over notions of privacy.

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