ICO calls for rethink on location privacy

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has called for an industry rethink on location privacy to avert future consumer backlash.

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The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has called for an industry rethink on location privacy to avert future consumer backlash.

The privacy watchdog wants UK tech firms to take more responsibility around empowering greater consumer control of the availability and use of location data, said Jonathan Bamford, the ICO’s head of strategic liaison.

“Most human activities online now have a location aspect, which bring both opportunities and significant risks for everyone,” he told attendees of a location and privacy conference in London.

The Fine Balance 2011 conference brought together privacy campaigners, tech innovators and academic researchers to discuss the use and management of location data by companies such as Google and Facebook, as well as criminals.

Privacy must be integral part of location-based services

Bamford said while there were things regulators could do to address the risks, this was only part of the solution.

“Privacy must be built into new location-based services from first principles, not thought of as a last-minute add-on,” he said.

Only by adopting this proactive approach will location-based service providers survive and prosper as their customers’ awareness of how this data can be used increases, said Bamford.

Dave Coplin, director of search at Microsoft UK, said empowering consumers and engaging them in a broad debate with large organisations and government regulators around how they control the information about themselves online, should be a priority.

Only then, he said, will the UK hope to benefit from the variety of commercial and social opportunities provided by these new location-based technologies.

“Privacy and data lies at the heart of ensuring Britain is able to live up to the potential that a truly digital society has to offer,” he said.

Security risks must be addressed

Tony Dyhouse, cybersecurity programme director of the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network, who co-hosted the conference, said that while surveys have shown more than half of UK consumers are not comfortable with businesses using location-based technology to pinpoint their whereabouts, many happily provide these details when signing up to their telecoms, online and social network services.

“Location data is not just valuable for advertising and marketing agencies, it is increasingly used by criminals online for identify theft, and in the real world to find out when a property is guarded and when it’s not, for example,” he said.

The location-based services market is a major growth area with revenues predicted to reach $10.3bn in 2015, up from $2.8bn in 2010, said Bob Cockshott, position, navigation and timing group director of the ICT Knowledge Transfer Network.

“It is fuelled by a range of personalised technology, specifically relevant to your needs wherever you are in the world. But there are legitimate privacy concerns as well. We need a way forward that takes advantage of this technology, while maintaining a keen eye on the rights of individuals to control who knows where they are at any one time and what that information is used for,” he said.

Identity assurance services

One potential solution discussed at the conference was introduced by Placr co-founder Jonathan Raper, whose First Location Bank provides an online brokerage for users' location data.

This ‘location bank’ will collect, store and share location data under users' own terms, and even negotiate for remuneration with companies interested in using it for commercial gain where users consent.

The idea is consistent with government proposals for identity assurance services to be used across all online public sector services.

In May, Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude said the intention is to create a market of private sector identity assurance services, allowing the public to choose the provider of their choice to prove their identity when accessing public services.

The plans are linked to the government's drive to move a substantial number of public services to online-only.

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