The following appeared in the Canadian online magazine Security MattersLocation Based Services: Do you know where your data is?

Do you know where your data is? By Christopher Burgess

 Everywhere you look, retailers and other entities are offering to collect your data using one of the many location-based services available to collate your whereabouts and analyze your behavior.  Are you appending your geo-coordinates or location to each social network update you are creating be it on Twitter, Facebook, SkyRock, Sonico, Foursquare or the like?  If so, please read the FAQ within the service and understand how you can opt-in or opt-out.  This applies to your devices as well; understand how to turn on and off the geo-location function of your device.  

Many of these services, widely used in Canada report and record your movements as you check-in or just update your status. The use of location-based services is both reasonable and worrisome.  Here are some thoughts on two key areas that might stimulate discussion for both the implementation side of the equation as well as the individual user’s perspective.

Vehicular Mode

Reasonable:  If I am driving my vehicle along a remote section of the Trans-Canada Highway and I have an accident and am incapacitated, I think having my automobile sensors note the vehicle has been in an accident followed by an automatically generated transmission to emergency services is an excellent use of a location-based service. I want help to come to me when I need it most, especially if I am unable to request it myself. Similarly, automated location updates would provide meaningful information about traffic congestion and suggest alternative routes. I’m also comfortable with the ability to request suggestions for services in an “on-demand,” rather than “push” scenario.   

Worrisome: My onboard global positioning device automatically transmits my vehicle identification, user data, vehicular data and specific location. That data is cataloged, aggregated and availed to third parties that may include my insurance company, vehicle warranty service, civil authorities or criminals.  The insurance company may wish to know my driving habits and whether or not I am operating the vehicle in a safe manner; the vehicle warranty service is monitoring for the state of health of my vehicle and whether or not I am maintaining the vehicle properly; the civil authorities may want to determine if I’m operating the vehicle safely or what roads I’m using; and the criminal is positioning my whereabouts, which may put at risk an alternate location. Example: An individual embarks on travel using a limited-access road. Once on said road, a third party with data access is able compare current data with prior data (aggregated) and deduce that the individual is going to work. 

Personal Devices

Reasonable: My handheld device generates, without user data, a presence signal using technological determination, or I have the option to declare myself present at a given locale using “check-in” processes. A retailer can share with me their opportunities in provision of services; Municipalities can update with any large-scale events, which may be of interest based on a given profile. My experience is uplifted; my opportunity to engage with retailers with whom I may not have knowledge enhanced. My presence is not available for collation beyond technological confirmation of delivery of the “advertised” inducement, and until I opt to use the “coupon” my presence remains in an unknown state.

Worrisome: These devices transmitting personally identifiable data can place the user at unexpected risk. If this is not sufficiently worrisome, “check-in” services, which provide inducement in exchange for declaring one’s presence, can pinpoint your device and the available data could be used in a variety of ways. Say you are visiting a local Pub; you check-in Monday through Friday and your information is collated by your life/health insurance company. Will you have the opportunity to note you were the designated driver? Or will assumptions based on broader norms be made and your rates increase based on where you have been?

Alternatively, your dependent children may declare themselves present in location after location on a regular basis. Sad as it is, there are those who prey on our children by surfing and harvesting information about young people from within chat-rooms and other online engagements. With the inducement of check-in or freewheeling data declaration, this can be used to the detriment of your family.


As indicated above, the good is easily understood; the worrisome perhaps not so much. A recent opinion out of the European Union suggests that having data cataloged, aggregated, and availed to others requires “informed consent.” Informed consent should be a minimal requirement. What we need is a starting position that is clear: The individual owns their data and thus only the individual may determine if their information may be colleted. I am also of the opinion that technological devices, such as smart-phones, must begin with the location-based integration set to “opt-out” and a change in state requires an unambiguous instruction to “opt-in.” 

As the marketing and development of Canada Location Based Services (LBS) continues to grow, with some estimating the total spend in the Canadian LBS market to reach $121 million by 2013, it’s up to you  to be aware of what your sharing, the purpose for which it’s being collected, and how it will be used and by whom.  It’s your privacy, protect it.

 Article 29 – Data Protection Working Party Recommendation  (European Commission Justice 22 June 2010 – 24 pages PDF)
Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)
Complying with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act
Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada