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Experts highlight the need for balancing convenience of new technology with privacy

5 November 2006 – Location-based technology has come a long way in a short time. Satellite navigation devices continue to fly off shelves as we are persuaded to ditch the unwieldy map on dashboard approach to navigation in favour of a calm computerised voice. Virtually everyone in the UK carries a mobile phone, which can increasingly pinpoint our location to within 100m.

Increasingly, mobile phone companies are offering location-based services to allow users to find restaurants and other amenities via their phones. Smartcards, such as Transport for London’s Oyster card, are allowing us to travel without the need to fiddle for small change.

While all of these technologies are hugely convenient, they are also becoming our very own pocket-based stalkers. As we enter a more connected world, where devices talk to each other and make sense of the masses of data we create, the issue of how much control we have over this process becomes more important. The need to balance the convenience of new technology while preserving our privacy formed the subject of a debate between privacy experts in London recently.

“Three-quarters of us have our whereabouts known by mobile operators and, by extension, law enforcement. It is seen as a necessary evil and so far the explicit use of location data has been limited to high-profile court cases,” said one of the panelists, Jonathan Raper, Professor of Geographic Information Science at City University, London.

While satellite navigation systems are currently stand-alone systems for our own personal use, imagine a scenario where satellite navigation companies offer traffic or speeding transgressions to the police without consulting the owner of the device. “Then ask yourself, whether you are concerned about privacy?” said Mr Raper.

It is not just offline activities that can be mapped. Where we go on the web has become one of the most traceable of all our footprints and we routinely give out personal information, which in turn creates vast data trails. Online, people are increasingly willing to share data, from geographical information for projects such as OpenStreetMap, to highly personal videos of themselves on MySpace.

The desire to share such information has led some to question whether anyone really cares about privacy online. They should, said Ian Brown, privacy advocate and senior research manager at the Cambridge MIT Institute. “It is easy to design invasive technology but we have to start looking at ways to make technology privacy-friendly too,” he added.