Geolocation 101: How It Works, the Apps, and Your Privacy

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Google, Facebook, and Twitter Join the Party

With such a burst of interest in geolocation, it’s hardly surprising that social-networking giant Facebook and ever-growing Twitter are getting involved. Last year Twitter introduced its geolocation API, which allows third-party developers to incorporate the feature into their apps. Many Twitter smartphone clients, such as Twitterrific or Tweetie, nowadays let you attach your current location to your tweets, and so do some of their desktop counterparts.

Twitter has recently introduced the same feature on its Website. Using geolocation from is not as seamless as with services like Foursquare or Brightkite. First, you have to opt in to the feature, and currently it works only with Mozilla’s Firefox browser. The Twitter service lacks check-in features and offers no incentives, such as badges or points, when you share your location. Right now, the only way to view the location information attached to a tweet is via a Google Maps overlay; but you can use Twitter's advanced search mode to search for tweets from around a certain location, such as a city.

Facebook is expected to make geolocation features available to its 400-million-plus users sometime in April, though details of the implementation remain undisclosed. Given that more than 100 million Facebook users update their status from mobile phones, however, the potential popularity of geolocation on that network is huge.

Google Buzz on an iPhone (left) and on an Android phone (right) lets you select from preset places, determined by your current location. Image: Google
Google hasn't been idle, either. In February, the search giant introduced a new geolocation and social networking tool called Google Buzz. Buzz resides within your Gmail app (under a new tab) and allows you to share status updates, images, and videos with other Buzz users.

Google Buzz is also available for use on Android phones, as well as on the iPhone, via a Web-based application. The mobile version lets you post (or dictate) real-time geotagged updates to your Google Buzz feed that show up on a new version of Google's mobile maps. The maps also show the location-sensitive updates of other Buzz users in the area.

For its part, Nokia offers a geolocation service through the Ovi Lifecast widget on its N97 and N97 smartphone models. (rumor has it that Apple will integrate the app in a future version of the iPhone).

Even the Mozilla Firefox browser can tell Websites where you are located, so you can find more-relevant information.

Google has also integrated location sharing in the latest version of its Chrome Web browser. Chrome's feature uses the World Geodetic System (WGS 84) navigation system, which is the reference coordinate system that the Global Positioning System (GPS) uses.

Geolocation and Your Privacy

When you leave your home, you inevitably sacrifice some of your privacy; and by sharing your location on social networks, you could put yourself at some increased level of risk. But geolocation services are working hard (without always succeeding) at keeping you safe from the potential dangers of sharing your location publicly.

Most geolocation apps let you set a certain level of privacy, but you can never be too wary of people with bad intentions who may be following your updates. As a first step toward protecting yourself, it's a good idea not to expose your home address on these services.

Privacy advocates have already gone to great lengths to raise awareness of the dangers of location sharing. One example is the Website (now retired), which aggregated tweets with location data attached, to highlight the dangers of having thieves invade your home when you tweet a distant location.

Unfortunately, keeping your whereabouts hidden from other people defeats the purpose of geolocation, so you have to make sensible decisions about how widely you share your status and how carefully you guard your privacy settings.

Brightkite, for example, lets you select for each post whether to share it only with your friends or with the whole world; however, if you cross-post your location on Twitter, any ill-intentioned follower could use that information.

Twitter’s approach to geolocation, in contrast, lets you select whether to include your whereabouts for each individual message. Google Buzz does the same thing. Twitter also lets you delete your entire geolocation history, in case you change your mind and want to erase your tracks.

Where Is All of This Heading?

Right now, geolocation apps seem to be the province of hip geeks and other tech enthusiasts. They also seem to be mainly about fun: Without the gaming features that Gowalla and Foursquare add to the technology, those apps wouldn’t be nearly as popular. But as geolocation technology gets better and more precise, it may prove to be extremely useful in more-serious apps, such as those used by public safety and news-gathering professionals.

But as more apps, fun or serious, begin attaching our locations to our messages, related privacy issues will remain a hot topic of conversation, perhaps forcing us to reexamine our views about how much privacy we need to maintain in our digital lives. As Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested, privacy isn’t what it used to be, and many people may be willing to surrender some of our online privacy in return for increasingly smart, convenient, and enjoyable apps.

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