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Privacy Controls in Location Based Services

"Tracking & Tracing" is the key aspect of delivering a location based service to the user. The immense potential of using geo-location to provide the value added services, gather business analytics, do market segmentation, etc. is causing flurry of LBS services being launched in the market. Along with all the value provided by LBS, there are lots of privacy concerns around its usage. The fact that user movements can be tracked by someone is raising lot of privacy concerns among the people in different segments. There are many regulations coming into place at the state level which requires special considerations to be given to the "Location" attribute of a person. In this blog, I will highlight some of the concerns raised by the segments, regulations that are in-place, possible solutions to address the concerns.

For better acceptability and establishing trust with the consumer of the services, privacy controls availability are the key to success of any location based services.

What is Location Privacy?

User's Static locations such as home address and/or work place are already known to the contacts or the service providers from whom they use different services such as Phone, Electricity, Cable, Banks, etc.

Sharing of Static location data is not a concern. Access to dynamic location i.e. ability to figure out where a user is at every given moment is what concerns and is subject to privacy controls and regulations. For e.g. User travelled from home to Airport and checked-in on the social website that he is at the Airport. In such a case the information is shared with the people as per user's wish and consent. What if someone is able to now trace what route he took to go from home to Airport?  It definitely raises the concern as the information can be used by unknown elements or it may be used by spammers to send the unwanted messages or it may be used by someone to estimate user's time away from home.

Location Privacy means the ability to control the information of a user current location to the extent of his/her discretion.

Why so much stress on Location Privacy now?

Is it not true that location is known to the bank, the moment user swipes the card?

Is it not true that location is known to the Transport Authority, the moment user passes through a toll gate?

Is it not true that location is known to Airline / Train services, the moment user boards the plane /train?

Answer to all these questions is "YES". Then what's the fuss about?

Well, in all these examples, location information is shared by user while doing a transaction and that too is not made public but shared with a very specific entity for a very specific purpose.

Many people are carrying a smartphone which has a GPS and/or GLONASS sensor in it, any application on such devices can easily track them. With all the intelligence built into the device by using their own location servers, apps on the devices can track the user location to a great deal of accuracy.

We are well aware of the fact that the Telco Provider could track down a subscriber using Cell Tower Triangulation. But it is the trust between the consumer and the mobile company that this information is not shared with anyone until the consent is given or in case of emergencies.

In the smartphone, there are all variations of app developers coming into existence who wants to provide the innovative experience to the consumer by using geo-location as a parameter. Can we trust them all or how do we know that the location is used only for a specific purpose. How do we ensure that the data captured on location aspects is not retained forever?

Since it is getting all over the place including a gaming site, social site, navigation site, and also some Marketers who want to push coupons, etc. it is a matter of concern.

How to control it?

Below are some of the important aspects to provide the controls à

1.       Regulations

In some countries, data privacy regulations have already defined the terms and conditions of the usage of location through the mobile devices. Interpretation of location privacy differs from country to country. For e.g. If the Person A hires car from a rental company XYZ then XYZ can enforce the rule that the GPS device should be taken along with car so that it can track its asset. In doing so, XYZ is inevitably tracking the Person A. In some countries, rights are with the company XYZ and in some places Person A is supported to decline the GPS device.


Below are some of the key regulations à


IETF GeoPriv à

W3C P3P à

FIDIS in Europe à


2.       LBS Provider responsibility


Any app which is reading user location should always take consent from the user before using it.

It should also provide in written, the privacy policy with details of how the location data will be used, what will be retention policy of such data, will it be used by any third party, etc.

As of today, all the apps that are installed on the devices ask the user during installation process about the usage of location but not necessarily during the application usage. As a regular user, I may just install the app without giving much thought on it and fall victim to the misuse.


LBS Provider can also adapt innovative ways of dealing with location data as given below à


Relative Location aapture

For e.g. Friend Finder App in which the two friends are notified to each other when they are in the proximity of say 1 mile, such app need not store the actual location information at all but only relative information. By using the relative location information, user privacy is honored and also the value added service is provided.

                         Anonymous data capture

In some apps, only thing that the app may be interested in is the number of people at one location and do not need to know who are all the people at this location. In such cases only aggregated information should be stored  without violating the user privacy.

                        Time bound location data

Location data should be used and discarded immediately after use. One-time use policy can be applied on this data so that it is not retained. If it is needed for reporting purpose, maximum some one should be allowed is 6 months to retain the user location data.

3.       Consumer Awareness


As a regular user, I should understand the possible implications on sharing the location data. It is as much a responsibility of the consumer as it is of the LBS Provider. User should ensure that the location data sharing and retention policy is well understood and only after reading it, access should be given. Also user should have right to turn off the location feature anytime from the application.


Is it the End of Privacy?

                My answer is NO as I see the progress made in regulations, responsible LBS Providers and the maturity obtained by the consumers. Again privacy of data is as long as you control it so whether you see it as a different way, I leave it upto you and invite you for the discussion on this blog.


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