Free geotagging services come at a cost

Michael Wolf

Location-based technologies have become more and more common in recent years, moving from guidance systems to mobile phones and social networks. But the implications of their use and complexity are not always apparent.

This content was published on November 13, 2012 minutes
Scott Capper,

My latest encounter was with a cycling application designed to gather data on any trips I make based on a mapping system and my smartphone’s GPS connection. It comes free of charge, and with a related website that allows me to marvel at my sporting excellence…

But to make use of it I have to register with the application’s makers, either via a social network or with my own user name. Just this first step implies sharing data with other people.

Once I’m in, and feed in the data I want, I can set off on my bike. GPS on, I start to record my trip. But do I want people to know where I am?

Each step involves decisions. Make the information you record public or not, in real-time or only once you are finished, and just who gets to see it. To a large extent, people have to decide how much they value their privacy when using a geolocation application.

Experts warn there are risks when it comes to using these applications.

“A person who has, for example, a map application on their smartphone may not see any problem with it, but may not realise their location data might be collected and could be used for other purposes,” says Nicolas Nova, who teaches ethnography at the Geneva University of Art and Design.

While an application’s general conditions might state such data could be collected, it might also be carried out without the user’s consent.

Last year, for example, United States researchers were able to demonstrate that Apple mobile phones contained a hidden location database that could be called upon at any time. It turned out later that Android handsets were also funnelling back location data to Google.

No deterrent

Being caught red-handed in Switzerland isn’t necessarily going to discourage providers of location-based services, according to internet law specialist Sébastien Fanti.

“Given the value of the information they can collect, the incentive is there for providers to ride roughshod over rules and regulations,” he told “And if they are caught, there are no sanctions.”

Fanti says that providers could cross-reference data to draw conclusions, which in his view is unwelcome. Details such as a person’s medical situation, religious affiliation, sexual preferences or even their addictions (by checking in every night at a bar) could for example become apparent.

Upcoming European Union legislation that could impose fines of up to two per cent of a provider’s annual turnover might be part of the solution. Normally, Switzerland takes over changes to EU law by adapting its own.

Ideally though, users should be able to give informed consent as to whether they are prepared to share their location.

“People are unaware of the implications when they agree to general terms and conditions,” said Fanti. “Issues related to geolocation should be mentioned explicitly and separately.”

Nova agrees, saying that an application should put in a request when it wants to know your location.

“Some people might find this a drag, but for me it guarantees an individual’s right to privacy,” he added. “It should also include the right to lie about one’s location”.

Add to this that criminals could use the information to their own benefit, and there is enough to make anyone wary.

Remaining invisible to location-based services of any kind is difficult. While it might be possible to opt-out online, the Swiss Centre for Technology Assessment said in a recent report that systems such as video surveillance meant you can still be tracked in public spaces.

The recent Google Street View case also highlighted privacy concerns in the public domain. The Swiss Federal Court ruled in June that by publishing or inadequately blurring some images it was putting online, Google was violating a person’s right to his or her own image and privacy.

Switzerland is not alone in this case. Under public pressure, last month Google, Microsoft and other companies set up a service in Germany allowing individuals to get images of their homes, license plates or themselves erased from mapping services.

Technology over privacy

“A lot of users don’t like to share intimate data such as their location,” said Nova. “This isn’t the case for social media such as Facebook.”

“So while they are happy to use a map system, they are less interested in using applications that track them. People are more cautious because they can also understand the implications of geolocation more easily.”

An American survey published this year showed nearly 60 per cent of smartphone owners used location-based services despite concerns about their data being shared and personal safety, highlighting what researchers call the privacy paradox.

One explanation for this behaviour may be that consumers value technology and innovation more than their privacy.

“Many of these applications are free in exchange for personal data that can be used for advertising or data mining that help define a consumer profile,” points out Nova.

“When a service is free of charge, there is always some means of using your data or profile. The paradox became apparent after these services became available. Some users stopped using them when they realised this, but many others accepted this as the price to pay.”

Police in the US have also been using geolocation data from smartphones to track people, turning the system into a surveillance tool. The New York Times reported earlier this year that much of this tracking was being carried out despite uncertainty as to what is legal.

However this type of abuse is unlikely in Switzerland. If in the US, the Patriot Act has allowed law enforcement to experiment in all kinds of ways with location data, the Swiss police can only call on it for serious crimes and only with the permission of a prosecutor.

So, how should users deal with location-based services? The Federal Data Protection Commissioner’s Office says that individuals should decide if their position data is a necessity. A railway timetable does not need to know your location, but a navigation system will, for example.

How will I share my location data while I’m on my bike? I suppose I will let the provider access it since I consider the benefit high enough. But will I share it with the rest of the world? I’m afraid I’m too ashamed of my training results to share those details.

Localisation technology

Satellite geolocation, using the Global Localisation System or GPS, was originally developed for navigation in the military sector. Today, it is in use in a wide range of areas such as point-to-point navigation in private vehicles.

Mobile phone localisation is carried out using mobile phone antennae. The precision of the location depends on the density of transmitter masts. Mobile phones with internet access, so-called smartphones, are also fitted with a GPS module which enables more accurate fixes.

Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs) are used to wirelessly interconnect computers in close proximity to each other and to the internet. A WLAN base station enables wireless access to a local network. Mobile phone devices are positioned in relation to the base stations, provided these are listed in corresponding databases.

Localisation via IP address: Every device needs an IP address to access the internet. With a known IP address the geographical location of the terminal can be reduced to a specific area. Precise localisation assumes that the provider discloses the connection data.

Source: Geographical signposts in cyberspace. Localisation technologies as a challenge for an open society. TA-Swiss

End of insertion


The Centre for Technology Assessment made the following proposals:

Measures enabling data protection must be implemented at an international level.

To the extent that the organisation of rescue services, transport systems and other public sector areas is being based on localisation systems, these must be included in the Swiss programme on Critical Infrastructure Protection.

Reliable and transparent software products must be certified to ensure proper data protection.

Legislation must limit the storage period for localisation data; those concerned should also be given a kind of “digital eraser” to curate their personal localisation data.

Digital media competence must be generally improved, especially among young people to make them aware of the opportunities and risks of putting their movement profiles and whereabouts online.

Source: Geographical signposts in cyberspace. Localisation technologies as a challenge for an open society. Centre for Technology Assessment

End of insertion
In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Share this story

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?