This Week’s Thoughts: Geo services on the Web

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Where are you right now?  That is a question you don’t have to ask many people, as they are constantly informing their friends and the whole world where they are, with geo-tagging services and their cell phone.  That can be useful and intelligent, but also problematic.  On the one hand, everybody will know where you are at the moment, on the other hand these data are abused already — for example by burglars.  It’s clear: when you are abroad, you are surely not at home…

Burglars and robbers are up-to-date as well — nowadays they use the Web to fetch important information.  Like where they can rob without worries, as nobody is at home.  The website demonstrate how simple that can be today.  Here people are listed who are not at home — and who have informed the public about this via Twitter.

Information can be abused

If you send a note with your cell phone to Twitter that you are just sitting in a certain coffee shop, maybe even with exact time data how long you are going to stay (so friends know), you will probably not worry about these data being abused.  That’s where the problem is, and that is what wants to change.  Sure, pleaserobme is not an official tool for burglars and robbers.  No, the website wants to awake us.  The creators want to show us how simple it is nowadays to extract sensitive data from the infinite data stream on the Web.

Burglars use data

And there are already, that’s proven, burglars using these data precisely.  Each second, people appear on sending tweets that they are not at home at the moment.  The service just scans all current tweets for specific keywords.  Sure, you do not know what the person’s name is and where he or she lives, but getting to know that is usually not too complicated.  Often, these data are listed in the social network profiles.

Online services use GPS receivers

Now you might think: Why should somebody constantly send tweets about his current location — that would get annoying.  Well, that is only partially true, as modern smartphones have GPS receivers.  Thus, they know where you are at the moment, and there are several Web services making intensive use of these data.  In the U.S. and in Asia already very popular and slowly coming over to Germany as well: The free Foursquare service.  Once set up in your phone, the device sends your current position automatically when you enter a coffee shop or restaurant.  The idea: Your friends should always know where you are — for the purpose of meeting for a coffee, for example.

Google Latitude

Even more popular and known: Google Latitude.  If you are using this service with your mobile phone, you can let the whole world know where you are currently — and what you are doing.  Once set up, the mobile phone will do this automatically, in continuous intervals.  The idea is the same: Friends will know if you are around as well.  Then the phone vibrates and you can call each other to meet.  I admit it: The idea of knowing better where friends, work mates or the family is at the moment, the idea can be somewhat interesting.  However, there are many traps.  The problem: If you forget that you have once set up such a geolocation service, you might get irritated days later that everybody can see where you are.

Movement protocol

For example, some bloggers embed a small web map into their website, displaying publicly where you are currently.  Or you can get info about places where you have been: That’s called location history, but it means an exact movement protocol.  If you are using such services, you have to pay attention to the settings and preferences you set up.

Watch out for bad surprises

If you don’t like bad surprises: Be sure to check the geo services settings.  There, you can set up in detail who may have a look at the location data.  For example, Google Latitude users can set whether they want to display only the current city — or an exact position, including your street.  You may use such features, but you should take care of your data.

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