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Blog: Topography of (Self)Exclusion: the Controversiality of Geo-tagging

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A few months ago, the news that Apple was tracking its users was all over the Internet. The company was indeed gathering location-related information on iPhones and geo-tagging all photos taken with the device by default, but after being sued they eventually released a patch that at least encrypts the file containing the controversial data. The incident shows how easy it is to underestimate privacy issues in locative media use, but also how easy it is to miss a key point about security. All iPhone users did in fact grant Apple the right to collect that information, when they signed the iOS4 software’s Terms and Conditions.

Similar security concerns have caused quite a stir around the popular Foursquare application. The software, thanks to the GPS technology in smart phones, allows people to “check-in” at their favorite locations, thus growing a reputation as savvy consumers and, in certain cases, earning themselves some sweet deals or discounts. However, after a couple stalking cases came to the attention of the media (read here and heremany started to consider the downsides of the service, which is increasingly widespread and is leading a diffused check-in revolution in social media (see Gowalla, Facebook Places, or even Twitter’s own geo-tagging).

Truth is, an app like Foursquare implies the person using it actually wants people to know where he/she is, plus there is still a certain control over who gets to see the updates. Users can choose whether to share their locations only with their Foursquare friends, or plug their check-in feed into Facebook and Twitter – which is what most of the stalking victims did. In order to demonstrate how much information is just given away to strangers via big social networks, sites like PleaseRobMe and ICanStalkU started to pop up. Along the same lines as YourOpenBook – where you can search through tons of public Facebook updates – the aforementioned websites are meant to point out how easy it would be to take advantage of users that don’t know how to set up their privacy and foolishly give their location away on public Twitter feeds.

As fellow Impakt blogger Lieke Kessels reported here, platforms like Flickr have been taking measures to make it easier for their users to control the geographical data which is increasingly often embedded into their photos. But, obviously, different companies might have different policies and priorities. Some will take measures only after they get sued, others will prevent any discontents by taking preemptive action. Those aiming at a quick expansion will encourage a wider sharing (Apple, for example, justified their location tracking saying that it helps connect faster), those that stress user control will act otherwise (Android phones have an opt-in geo-tagging policy). The following is always valid, though: the user cannot expect them to be more responsible than he/she would. If Foursquare allows you to share your check-ins on Twitter, that doesn’t mean you can’t know better.

If you guys are interested in the controversial geography of the so-called “Cloud”, hang around the Impakt website. This year, Impakt Online – the festival’s own platform for Internet art – will feature a very promising project by meta-design masters Metahaven: the Cloud app. With the premise that “ we send and retrieve information through a jurisdictional web hidden from us”, the software “aims to make visible the geographical and legal systems of the cloud.” We’ll keep you posted on this and the other Impakt Online projects, so keep checking the site!