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Geotag your life: websites that broadcast location raise privacy concerns

VANCOUVER, B.C. - As if knowing what your friend had for lunch wasn't enough, now you can see where she was eating it as well.

VANCOUVER, B.C. - As if knowing what your friend had for lunch wasn't enough, now you can see where she was eating it as well.

An increasing number of websites and social networking services are adopting geotagging, allowing users to include their exact location when they update their status or upload a photo.

The technology opens up new ways for users to interact with information on the web, but privacy experts warn there are dangers in haphazardly broadcasting your location to the world.

The lists of services that incorporate geotagging, typically by using data from cellphones equipped with GPS technology, has been growing during the past year or so, with sites like Twitter, Flickr and blog providers enabling users to include their location in whatever they post. Facebook is expected to add geotagging soon.

There are even sites that exist solely to allow users to tell others where they are, such as Foursquare, Gowalla and Google's Latitude service.

Tamir Israel, a staff lawyer at the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic, says users shouldn't use these services without first thinking about the privacy implications of telling anyone with an Internet connection where they are and where they've been.

"There's some utility to them and they're fun and there's some uses to them," says Israel.

"But you don't really know where this information is going to pop up."

Israel says users who start geotagging what they post to the web might not realize how far that information can travel.

For example, the immediate audience of a Twitter post is the author's followers, but now websites are taking geotagging information and superimposing tweets on real-time maps, so anyone can find out what people around them are saying.

The data will also be valuable to marketers for the same reason that social networking sites collect - and then sell - profile information such as favourite movies, he says.

And Israel can't resist the opportunity to float a scenario that might seem like something out of George Orwell's "1984," but which he says isn't such a far-fetched idea.

He cites Google's Latitude, which can send constant location information from users' cellphones to their profile, as an example.

"Say everybody had one of these and there's a crime scene, so all the police need to do is say, 'OK, Google, who was here?"' says Israel.

"Before, for police to put a camera there or to have followed everybody in the city, they would have needed a very serious type of warrant."

Israel says a service like Foursquare, which requires users to "check in" every time they want to post where they are, is less problematic because it requires a conscious decision whenever a location is shared. Compare that with Google's Latitude, which can run in the background and is easy to forget.

Geotagging is fuelling the same debate about privacy that sites like MySpace and Facebook helped generate. Canada's Privacy Commissioner, who forced Facebook to make changes to its privacy policies, is already examining geotagging, says Israel.

The recent proliferation of geotagging prompted a group of web developers from the Netherlands to launch the website pleaserobme.com, which offered Twitter posts of users announcing they weren't at home, suggesting they would be good targets for a break-and-enter.

The site wasn't actually advocating burglary, says one of its creators, Boy van Amstel, but rather trying to make users think before they post.

"It's basically global if you don't protect your messages," van Amstel says from the Netherlands.

"What we saw is people sharing their location, their home address or their friends' and relatives' (addresses), so we thought maybe these people aren't realizing that they're not just broadcasting to their friends but to the entire world."

The website sparked a media frenzy and has since been taken down, van Amstel explains, because the point had been made.

Van Amstel hopes users become more careful with how they use services that include geotagging, just as some have started to be more protective of their social networking profiles.

"Just a few years back we were debating whether we should share our full name on the Internet," he says.

"But now it's so easy to just go with the flow and share more and more and more. We really wanted to have a moment to force people to think about what they're doing. They (geotagging services) are a pretty big step from sharing your name or saying you like dogs."