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What you really need to know about privacy and checking in using location-based apps

Location-based services are the “hot” topic on the social web with platforms such as @TriOut, @Foursquare, @Loopt, @Gowalla, @Yelp, @Whrrl and more. Millions of users are checking in, sharing their location, posting reviews and uploading photos in real-time. Recently I’ve read a few articles about foursquare stalkers and how others are quitting location-based apps all together due to local wanna be’s social stalking, and still others are quitting location-based apps because they are receiving little or no value from checking in. Regardless, if you’re just learning about location-based apps and/or are cautious about checking in, privacy should be your number one concern as a user.

How TriOut manages privacy
Sadly, not enough location based apps/services focus on privacy and many are launched to get as many users as possible without first educating their community about how to use their platform without worring about being stalked, robbed, etc. With TriOut privacy is our number one focus. By default a new TriOut user’s privacy setting is opt-in, meaning your account is set to private by default. You have the options to add your Twitter or your Facebook account and of course if you tweet or post a message to your Facebook profile then you are choosing to share your profile with your social graph, but inside of TriOut, your profile is still set to private. We also made it where even if your profile is private, you can still take advantage of check-in specials and/or rewards. Also, with our location-based analytics dashboard, your profile stays private and businesses do not have access to your profile. To sum it up, if you’re a private TriOut user it means that your profile and check-ins are not public but if you add friends then your friends are able to see your checks-ins, therefore we suggest you only friend people who you know and trust to see your check-ins.

What you need to know about checking in using other location-based apps
As for the rest of the location-based platforms each one is a little different but they all have similar features when it comes to checking in and privacy. Here are the basics.

  • Once you download/use a location-based app and start checking in, you are agreeing to their terms of services, privacy settings and how they use your location data.
  • Some services offer you the ability to have private individual check-ins “off the grid” (like Foursquare) or all of your profile can be set to private allowing only your trusted friends to see your check-ins.
  • When you check-in, you’re giving location-based services and businesses the ability to see any of your social profile information along with data, time, etc. of your check-ins.
  • Be very selective when adding friends. You may want to only add family members, co-workers or trusted friends. If you have a stalker ex-boyfriend/girlfriend, ex-husband/wife or hated enemy you may want to have a private profile or choose an alias. Also, it’s ok to check-in when you’re leaving a location.
  • Checking in means some location-based platforms may provide your data to advertisers/brands through partnerships.
  • Remember checking in is a choice not a requirement. The last thing I want to read or hear about is someone getting stalked or robbed as a result of using any location-based service.

Twitter / Settings
Location-Based Services vs Geo enabled tweets
Many would say that checking in is a higher security concern than sending a tweet or a Facebook status update. That is true but if you enable the “Add a location to your tweets” it may not give the exact location of where you are but it can let your twitter followers and others know you’re not at home or near a certain location. We’re starting to see more mobile and web apps that aggregate conversations via nearby tweets using Twitter’s API but, having Twitter protecting your privacy in terms of location is as simple as turning on or off your location in your profile settings.

Browsers can check-in and share your location too.
Safari 5, Google Chrome, Firefox and other updated browsers all are geo enabled and can detect your location by IP addresses. Your IP address may not give your exact location but you need to be aware of how websites and HTML5 apps are asking for your location. This can be easily turned controlled in your browser settings.

Education is first
No matter what location-based platform you use, please use them with caution. There’s a reason why the social web and entrepreneurs are excited about the location industry, from connecting users to brands, customers to businesses and providing loyalty programs, there are tons of opportunities for everyone. But educating users about the risks, the pros and cons, should be location-based services number one focus. I can’t speak for the rest of the 60 plus location-based apps but as for TriOut, that’s our goal, educate our users about privacy first, provide value second, build a great platform for business and customers and have fun while doing it.

Photo via flickr by Michael Francis McCarthy

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