Ever have the feeling that someone is spying on you?

Today, it’s more likely that you are broadcasting enough information thatanyone can spy on you.

In the most recent issue of Wired magazine, freelance writer Mathew Honan recounts his “I am here”adventures of a “3-week experiment of living la vida local.” Using all the new technology (software and hardware) especially iPhone apps, he demonstrates how easy it is to be constantly monitoring your environment electronically as well as for everybody to know where you are. For example, with the program WhoseHere, you can send your latitude and longitude location and instantly get responses from other people in the area. The responses, needless to say, range from “I’m looking for sex” to “Really great coffee shop.”

Other interesting revelations: “Because iPhones embed geodata into photos that users upload to Flickr or Picasa, iPhone shots can be automatically placed on a map.” In other words, people will know exactly where you were when you took the picture. Interestingly, Honan concludes the article by describing how he almost got into a car accident because he was so busy getting “better location awareness” through his various geo gadgets that he didn’t notice a car (a Prius, of course!) stopping short in front of him. He concludes that technology cannot replace “look[ing] around the old-fashioned way” and keeping a “sense of place.”

One such app, Google Latitude, is already occasioning controversy.

Let’s call this the question of geoprivacy.

Leave aside for a moment whether you would want everybody and anybody to know where you are all the time; the fact is that the technology is getting to the point where that will happen anyway. Obviously, one partial solution would be for any in device that creates geolocation markers there should be clear warning labels about the details and the extent to which our movements are being broadcast. In addition, just like in Facebook’s profile feature in which you can limit page views to only friends, there should be a way to encrypt or conceal geolocation features so that only certain people or certain groups of people can read there.

The ethics of listening in (or viewing) other people’s location and images is not so clear cut. If somebody is putting up pictures of themselves for anyone to see (and note the location and time) then:

  • how can it been unethical to watch them?
  • do you have the right to “republish” the images/words/geolocation to other sites or pass them on?
  • do you have the right to comment on images/words/geolocation–perhaps with funny captions?
  • do you have a moral obligation to warn somebody when you think their online self-exposure could be dangerous (say, with underage children?)
Update on February 12, 2009 

And just in from Google mail: “Location in Signature.” Marco Bonechi, a Software Engineer at Google has designed a feature for gmail that will automatically include your location (city, region, country) as part of your email signature line.

He explains:

It’ll use your public IP address to determine your location, so it may not always be that accurate. For example, if you’re at Heathrow airport, IP detection may put you in Germany. If you want more accurate location detection, make sure your browser has a version of Gears that supports the location module. That way, Gears can make use of wi-fi access point signals to recognize that you’re actually in London.

Reporters (and even novelists) have always used location as part of their byelines, as in “This is London…”. But now you can show off where you are, though, I assume somebody will write an app to fake the location.

Originally posted February 10, 2009 at PolicyByBlog

Original Comments Here

One Comment

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    Original Reader Comments (30)

    If someone puts up a picture of themselves with no limits, than it isn’t unethical, it’s perfectly ethical. I agree that any device with location markets needs to be clarified to the user in a simple manner. It seems there is no rule against republishing other’s images, etc. So if someone doesn’t implement their own safety features the blame should be on them. The same view goes with comments about others images, etc. If you allow it to be looked at than why not to be commented on. No moral obligation is present to warn somebody of their inappropriate posting. One should know what could be potentially dangerous. I really think that the lawmakers need to make a strick policy on this geoprivacy issue.
    February 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMikeJohn1013

    Companies should be placing clear, simple statements about the issue of geoprivacy on their products. I don’t think it is a matter of moral obligation to tell someone. People should know what they are getting into before they use it. If someone doesn’t like it, they should be able to remove that function. I don’t think it is unethical to know where someone took a picture. Chances are, if they put it up on the internet for millions to see, they are comfortable letting people know where they were and who they were with. Also, I don’t think it is unethical to comment on peoples pictures, whereabouts, etc. It’s no different than posting anonymous responses to blogs, newsstories and editorials online. If someone puts something on the internet, they better expect comments and criticism-that’s just the nature of the beast.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDover

    I think the whole geoprivacy issue comes back to the same, central idea: are we really thinking about what we’re doing? Do we consider the consequences? If we are all aware of what we are doing, what others are doing,and the results of these actions, we will have fewer ethical issues to deal with. For example, if we think before we put up half-naked party pictures, then other people won’t have to guard their children from these images. Similarly, if we consider that our location can be determined based on where we take a picture, we may eiher a) not take the picture with our phone, b) not post it online, or c) block the image. This removes some of the ethical respnsibility from us and from the picture’s viewers. However, I’m afraid if might be a bit idealistic to assume that everyone will think before they act.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSongbomb21

    I believe that with the freedom of speech you can comment on a picture or location left by the person who is in that picture or location. I believe there is no moral obligation to tell someone if you think there posting or picture is inappropriate. If you choose to do so that is fine but I do not believe I am morally obligated to tell someone I do not like their post. To each his own, and if someone wants to express there current loation that is there choice. Now if their privacy is being invaded before they release there information then we might have a problem but if they are offering there location they it is there own privacy issue.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterte6506

    I think that if someone posts a picture of themselves, than it’s perfectly ethical to comment or pass the picture on. If the person is a family member or friend, I also think it is ethical to warn them of unwanted on-line exposure. The i-phone location tracker is scary and invasive. I don’t know if this applies, but the new U.S. Passports have computer chips in them, I wonder if there is any way for the government to locate you via your passport.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjthought87

    Although it sounds creepy that your location can be figured by anyone on the net or with a geo app as well, I do not find it unethical because so many other internet applications allow viewers to view your photos, blog comments, and any information about you. However, I do think there should be some sort of disclaimers alerting the users that they have this app and it will be publicly viewed unless altered by the user Why someone ( a complete stranger) would want to know my exact location when I took a picture is a little weird, but I do not htink it is unethical if the application I was using is publicly shared
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterbosco

    People should definitely be able to enable/disable the location devices on their phones. This feature could be beneficial if it is necessary but consumers should have the option of privacy.As far as looking at other people’s pictures etc, it was their choice to put that on the internet and edit the privacy settings to their liking so it should not be considered unethical to look at what they post if they have made it available to you personally or the public in general.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDuke44

    I think that its is ethical to find out where someone is at any given time if they are the person broadcasting that signal. Likewise, if you are posting words or an image to a blog or facebook page, isn’t it for attention in someway? If you don’t want people to comment, don’t broadcast it to the world!

    I think that in the near future, more options for geoprivacy will come about. If you recall, Facebook and other social networking site’s privacy policies have come a long way, and in time, there will be a way to conceal geolocations as well.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWMJ220

    If you are placing images or information online then you should expect to receive feedback. The internet is available to the entire public and when you place private information on a public site you should expect comments. I agree with bosco, there should be some sort of disclaimer informing the user of the application and its use. I would assume many iPhone users are unaware of the location tracker. If I buy a product which will make my privacy available to others I want a disclaimer and an ability to remove the application. Sure, sometimes the tracking ability is highly useful but I don’t want to be under Big Brother’s watch.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCiaoBella

    It is definitely not unethical to look at pictures someone has willing posted of themselves for everyone to see. If a family member or someone close to me posted something that could pose danger I would warn them. Honestly, I don’t understand why people want to put so much of themselves out there these days. I am more of a private person and would think others would enjoy their privacy too. If people want to post certain things knowing the ramifications then more power to them.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdaslonka

    Obviously it can be extremely disturbing to think about who could be tracking you, using the technology we ourselves buy and use.
    I think there definitely ought to be a way for you to disable the tracking devices put in phones, computers, g.p.s. ect.
    But when it comes down to it, it’s up to the companies designing our technology to decide if we can disable any part of their product. If you can’t disable the tracking device, and you are honestly concerned that your privacy is at stake, there’s a really easy solution; get rid of whatever technology is scaring you so much.

    But if you’re actually honestly worried about your privacy, because you think your iphone is allowing people to stalk you, consider this:

    If civilians are allowed to buy and use g.p.s. systems, and look at anything, anywhere on the surface of the earth using Googlearth…Then imagine what the Government’s technology is capable of. I’m willing to bet they are at least one step ahead in terms of privacy invasion, tracking, satellite imagery, ect.

    Are our little iphones really what we should be worried about?
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdugarte

    I, personally, do not like the applications like twitter or Google latitude. How do you draw the line from informing people to putting yourself in danger OR boring people with every nuance of your life? Nobody needs to know when you are eating a muffin or what you’re watching on T.V.- that is just a little excessive.
    As for technology keeping track of you, the places you frequent or where you live- it is a little Big Brother-ish for me. The fact that I can Google Earth my house and see my entire street, does make it seem like some of my privacy has been stripped.
    If you put yourself out there, however, you run the risk of someone watching you or copying a picture to their friends. If you don’t want people to see pictures or information about yourself don’t put it on the WORLD wide web, because anyone in the world could get their hands on it.
    February 11, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersenior.09

    The idea of someone knowing where you are at all times, without you being aware, is very scary. I agree that if a device, such as the iPhone, has a system in it that places a tag on every picture you take or message you send, users should be made aware this is occuring. At this point, it is up to them how they handle it. I would like to see some sort of “privacy settings” placed on these devices. People should have the ability to choose whether or not they want their information displayed, much like it is on social networking sites.

    My brother, just the other day, brought up to me the idea of getting an iPhone application so he could “see how it worked.” He purchased this application because he thought it was cool…and the general idea is that you can log on and see where all of your other friends with this application are. Without hesitation, I declined this offer. The idea of this is scary to me. If someone wants to know where I am, a simple phone call can answer that for them. At the same time, I am not too frightened at the idea that if someone wanted to, they could find this information out anyways. I guess it is a case of “that would never happen to me.” I mean, how many people in this world care enough about where I am to go through these loop holes. Then again, that is probably not a good attitude to have.

    The progression of technology is scary. The things our devices can do that we aren’t aware of is insane. And I do believe knowledge is power, and we should at all points be aware of what its capabilities are and how to stay safe and protected within them.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterinot1987

    I think as long as people are willingly providing access to their geographical information and photographs; it’s free game to anyone. Any comment or opinion is acceptable. However, I believe each device should have the capability to turn off any kind of invasive/tracking feature. Being able to pinpoint specific locations of people could be very beneficial in missing person’s cases. We should learn to use every new technology to our benefit and not reprimand it for its invasiveness.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJayhawk411

    I think it is ethical to comment on or republish a picture that someone has posted. The publisher needs to know that once he/she posts that picture online it is up for free use. I don’t think that I have a moral obligation to warn someone that posting a picture could be dangerous because they should already know the risks of posting a picture or other personal information online.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteraimsk09

    It’s unethical to watch and track a person who hasn’t made it obvious that they know people have the ability to watch them. With any new technology, there will be people who don’t fully understand the extent (and dangers) of all its uses.It’s absolutely unethical to republish information if the original user has not given permission. Comments are acceptable. It’s the users job to either regualarly monitor the comments, or just disallow them alltogether. Finally, we most definitely have a moral obligation to warn someone, especially a friend or family member, if they’re publishing information that could be dangerous.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwachashi

    It is important for consumers today to be knowledgeable about all new technology. That being said, we should all be aware of the risks we are taking by buying some new high-tech device like an iPhone. If someone willingly puts pictures on the internet for all to view, then who is to say it is wrong for anyone to view these pictures. Do not broadcast the pictures if you do now want certain people viewing them. However, it is not right for someone to take it upon themselves to decide what action needs to be taken in regard to the photo. Whatever sites the photos are being posted to are the sites the user wanted them posted to and no one has the right to repost tose photos. However, if someone is in danger in the photos or danger is immediately present because of the photos, we have a responsibility as citizens to take proper actions.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJacquelann

    Once someone has posted information on the internet there is basic understanding that they are wanting and allowing people to see the material. If they don’t want it seen they shouldn’t post it, that should be common sense. I don’t think anyone has a moral obligation to warn people of possible self-damaging material but I don’t think it is unethical to do it either. It all has to do with the relationship with the person.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBuster

    I think if people make the decision to post photos of themselves they are signing over the rights in some ways. I don’t think it’s unethical for people to comment on images that a voluntarily posted. People need to control what they post if they want their info to remain private. I do think there needs to be more restrictions on children’s online exposure, but they may be up to parents to implement. If I were a parent I would probably be more opinionated on the issue but I do think the exposure of children is the biggest ethical issue of exposure. It’s just a matter of how do you prevent children from overexposing or protect them from being victimized by unethical people prowling the Web?
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEmily87

    It is a very scary thought that technology is becoming this advanced. It seems as if everybody around me now has a blackberry, but I am happy to report I am still using an old motorola phone (that doesn’t connect to the internet). With so many different ways to have your information on the internet, it makes me wonder if we are really safe. I think people forget sometimes that once you post something online, it is there forever. I was watching a murder mystery show and the case was solved by computer forensics. This lady thought that because she was careful when posting things online it would never come back to haunt her, but she was completely wrong. I think that people just need to be smart about what they put online, clearly if they know that it is offensive or embarrassing to themselves or somebody else then it would not be smart to post it. Until everything goes online or I am forced to buy into all of the new technologies that can trace my every move, I will be sure to stick to older technologies (Partly because I don’t understand how all of the new gadgets work).
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersugar086

    This topic goes back to people wanting attention. Our generation seeks out attention, then when too much is given, we want to take it all back. If you are posting pics and other things on facebook or another OSIM then you’re asking for it. It would be nice to limit who can “find” you, like privacy settings, but I have a feeling if someone wanted to, they could get past those with relative ease. I also believe that the warnings on such devices are a great idea. People should know what they are exposing themselves to when they buy new technology. Watch the movie “Eagle Eye” to get a feel for the ultimate price of this topic.

    -Also, I don’t know if that Prius “stopping short” is a Seinfeld reference, but if it is I just wanted to let you know that I caught on…”that’s my move!!!”
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentersunshine

    What a person chooses to post to the online world does not have much limits. Once it is out there, anyone can copy the content and spread it around. On the other hand, I see it as a problem if someone is being located based off of their photos taken from their phone. In emergencies it is good to be traced, but otherwise I do not see this as being necessary. Before long, I think we will have chips installed in us to track us at all times…Kind of like how you can get them put in your puppy, if he gets lost.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterK523

    I think education is part of the answer here. All consumers need to be educated on the consequences of their purchases and the “Joe the Plumbers” need to be educated on how their actions Online can haunt them and how others can trace their location. Also, just as companies’ products are required to have warning labels, shouldn’t it be legally required for them to tell their customers if their device has location-tracking features? Aren’t their legal ramifications for complanies who choose not to obviously inform their customers?
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKUkris1

    It’s crazy to think how quickly the technology of today is advancing. While I don’t agree with programs like Google Latitude and Twitter, it is each user’s choice. And by making the choice to participate in such public features, it is expected to receive feedback. I believe that by posting videos, photos, or Twitter updates on-line, you are making your life public and those viewing your public life should be more than welcome to give feedback. By taking that risk, it is only fair to not ethically judge those watching.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkew27

    While this is a scary thought, we’re asking for it. When you upload pictures to the Internet you immediately are forfeiting your right to privacy. If I were ever involved in an online photo scandal, I would quickly take back that statement. In all seriousness, we know technology is advancing and is capable of all these things, so it is in our hands to be more cautious with our imacs, iphones, ipods, etc.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermegs527

    I think the theme of Geoprivacy is becoming more and more popular. It is a given that at any given time, someone knows exactly where you are and what you may be doing. This is just another upside and downside of technology. The more advanced we get, the less privacy we have. If someone decides to post a picture online, it is fair game. On the other hand, if consumers are not aware of the fact that they can be located trhough their phones, it should be clearly labeled on the product.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLMP316

    There has always been the idea that you have no privacy when you are in the “public.” However, the idea of public is changing. I bet the original intent of this idea of public did not include the ability to visually track people with satellites nor did it include the idea of wanting to track people with satellites. This poses the dilemma: the ability of technology/the use of technology. I tend to think of criminal records with this idea of public…Sure someone could have had a DUI in 1976, and those who read the local paper that day could have known that this occurred, but this type of information now is permanent and can be accessed at any time. Just go look up criminal records online.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterdude.hey

    Putting up a pic or video for anybody to see, ex. facebook or youtube. Is a personal decision in which one is giving up privacy. So it would not be unethical to view the image. That being said I do believe it to be unethical to copy and distribute the image without the consent of that person. The caption is ok if you’re a friend or if its open to the public. And I definately feel like it would be my obligation to tell somebody if they were being watched by unsuspecting people. Basically people are responsible for their own privacy. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. it
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfabi.f.babi

    If the person is putting up pictures for people to see, than it isn’t unethical for people to view those pictures. There should be some sort of warning to notify people posting pictures of the dangers before they are allowed to post. I believe that people do have the right to republish posts and pass them on as long as the people who originally post know that this can be done with any content they post. I think that people should be able to comment on images/words/geolocation as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of the person posting. I do think it is a moral obligation to warn people of their dangerous online self-exposure, especially if it puts their lives in danger. I do not feel that it would be right to try and restrict what they are posting, but I would try and make them aware of the dangers. It is up to the individual to be cautious when posting.
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered Commentergretzky99

    Just as Emily Post’s “Rules of Etiquette” helped shape America’s questions on table manners and social gatherings, there needs to be a series of publications that redefine the Rules of Netiquette with regards to privacy.

    Instead of unspoken rules that are discussed on forums and message boards, this need for publication and mass approval and subsequent popularity of a set of rules will allow daily consumers to be able to refer friends and family to these guidelines on how to handle data that involves that person. Companies already have set guidelines for their employees regarding privacy and even restrict websites from being visited. Why don’t cell phone companies also adopt a universal set of guidelines (or at least semi-universal) that cover the basic ground of privacy and geo-positioning much in the same way Congress has been able to use the Internet protection act for years with little to no updates?
    February 12, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBananagrams

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