Resolving privacy/security issues: geolocation based services

An interesting site launched recently. It’s called Please Rob Me and shows one of many potential problems using geolocation based services. If someone checks in, announcing they are away from home, they have made it known there is one less person in the house and that the house might be potentially empty. Most people do not see the concern in checking in. For example: just because Marty checks in that he is away from the house doesn’t mean the house is empty, right? Another one: Alice does not put her address online publicly so how can someone rob her if they don’t know where she lives?

Depending on the situation, that’s stupid logic. Yes, I said stupid.

Do you want this to happen to you?

The couple down the street owns a house. They have a daughter. Normal family, they did not use computers much and definitely did not use geolocation based services. Probably seemed like an average day but it all went wrong when someone decided to rob their house. Unfortunately, their daughter broke the routine and came home early from school. They only beat her “a little bit” to shut her up. The couple eventually divorced. That horrible day made life, as they knew it, changed.

Let’s look at the logic again: if Marty checks in using a geolocation based service, that doesn’t mean the house is empty. Does Marty really want someone breaking into the house when his wife and or child is at home? If something happened to anyone in his family, would he be able to forgive himself for using a service that was unnecessary?

While I’m at it, let’s break down the other stupid logic: not knowing someone’s address. We’ll step away from the fact that there are services that, for under $10, you can find out just about anything you want to know that is public record. If you are a homeowner, your property records are public record. Bingo, a thief has your address, for minimal effort, without the homeowner putting it online. Someone living in an apartment or living in some else’s home has an added layer of security but that does not mean the information cannot be found. That same $10 or less service can usually provide address/phone number information because somewhere along the way, the person gave up their private information on something that is considered public record or to a party that sells the information. Happens to the best of us.

Other considerations

I have found that people have an unrealistic image of thieves. I have seen many comments describing thieves as violent, unintelligent people. This is an extremely naive point of view. Once these services become mainstream, everyone uses them. That includes criminals and those with deviant behaviors. I read an article about a drug dealer who used Twitter and you would never know; reading the person’s tweets, the “job” being tweeted about was dealing drugs. Thieves go where the money is and will adapt to use technology to make their job easier, just like any other profession. Think of the time saved staking out a place if the homeowner conveniently checks in with a geolocation service.

Also consider the kids growing up today are computer savvy. A small percentage of these kids are the thieves of tomorrow.

Possible solutions

A smart man makes a mistake, learns from it, and never makes that mistake again. But a wise man finds a smart man and learns from him how to avoid the mistake altogether. – Roy H. Williams

The only way to fix a problem is to first, admit there is a (potential) problem. Geolocation based services are security risks – plain and simple. I was told by my homeowner’s insurance company that my policy will not cover theft if I used check-in services. A homeowner is supposed to use due diligence to protect the house. Just like adding an alarm will bring the insurance premium down, I can see using these services raising premiums through the roof.

But there are good uses for geolocation based services. For example, my friend Bill took a trip and checked in all through the road trip. In the event something happened to him, people would have an idea where to look. SXSW (or events like that) is another example where knowing where your friends are comes in handy. Let us find some solutions where we can have our fun (geolocation based services) and no one gets hurt or robbed.

  1. A way to opt-out an address: Give people a way to make sure their home address never shows up, even if someone checks in at their place. The caveat is, due to there being multiple services; the person would have to go to multiple services to opt out.
  2. Restrict check-ins to commercial locations only: This might be the smartest move for long-term privacy protection. Perhaps tying in with Google Maps there would be a way to easily know if a location is commercial or residential.
  3. Children: The argument of “know what your child is doing” falls apart when the device the child is using is a cell phone. Children cannot be expected to have the wisdom of an adult. To protect children, perhaps there should be some sort of parental controls. There have been enough cases on children meeting up with people they thought were kids but were actually adults. If the child is using a geolocation based service, they don’t have to “meet up”…the other person just has to “show up” at that location.
  4. The only residential addresses that show up are those attached to an account where the owner of the account opts-in that the address shows up publicly. This does not account for change in ownership of the home.
  5. Keep the geolocation service private, within their own community. Not a member and a friend of the person? You cannot see the updates.

In the end…

I have no doubt that if the conversation about protecting privacy begins, the smart minds of the community will find a solution for the services to thrive and for everyone to be safe. Instead of being afraid to talk about it, let us look the problem in the eye and resolve it.

You know…before something bad happens.