Geolocation apps shed light on the definition of privacy

Participating in increasingly popular social media services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places means a willingness to share your physical whereabouts. For PR pros working with and for these companies, that means overcoming privacy concerns.

Participating in increasingly popular social media services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places means a willingness to share your physical whereabouts. For PR pros working with and for these companies, that means overcoming privacy concerns.

Dubbed "geolocation" mobile apps, services such as Foursquare and Loopt offer goodies to users who "check in" at retailers with smartphones while sharing their location with people in their social networks. Facebook Places simply indicates where a user is when they check in somewhere.

All these apps offer some level of privacy settings and cross-platform opt-in controls, but that doesn't mean the message is automatically understood outside a generation of tech-savvy social media consumers who embrace the trade-offs of geolocation.

Ongoing education

"As PR people, it's our job to educate," says Erin Gleason, PR manager at Foursquare. "We still have a long way to go."

To reach users other than 20- somethings seeking a discount, experts say more outreach is needed beyond just offering elaborate privacy controls.

"These things are confusing," says Mike Farber, GM of the Boston office of LaunchSquad, which does PR for SCVNGR, a Cambridge, MA-based geolocation game startup. "We must make it easier to understand."

Michael Young, EVP and tech practice leader at Access Communications, says these services have done well by going out of their way to articulate their privacy safeguards. "It's an individual's job to understand," he says. "To Millennials, privacy is not being filmed or recorded at that moment."

Indeed, as Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted earlier this year, the social media surge may have changed the very concept of privacy. But Facebook's user-privacy-settings debacle that still resonates with the social-media-using public may have also acted as an impetus for startup geolocation services.

"As these services scale up, you don't want to dupe the customer," says Farber. "It's important to describe yourself right up-front."

Sharon Howell, corporate communications manager for Loopt, the Mountain View, CA-based geolocation app, adds, "Users don't like surprises when it comes to privacy on any service."

Loopt's approach, she explains, focuses on "privacy by design," meaning privacy is considered at every stage of development.

Foursquare built a separate "Privacy 101" page on its commercial website to explain user privacy settings and company policy. "We think about privacy all the time," says Gleason. "It's a work in progress."

By nature, many contend, geolocation appeals mainly to sophisticated social media users and those concerned with privacy won't take part. But Facebook Places differs because it's a tool on a platform with 500 million-plus users, some sophisticated, but many not, says Atomic PR CEO and cofounder Andy Getsey.

Because of its vast user demographic and history of encouraging hyper-sharing and complicated semi-opt-out privacy settings, Facebook has been criticized by privacy advocates, he adds.

"Opt-in is always better than opt-out, at least from a user's perspective," says Getsey. "But these are business decisions first and become positive or negative PR issues second."

Facebook declined to comment for this article.

Getting the story right

A basic challenge for geolocation PR is making sure the story is right because where there is a privacy advocate crying foul, there's a reporter to write a story.

"You can't satisfy the privacy purists," says Access' Young.

Gleason says Foursquare acts swiftly on false stories about privacy and geolocation by reaching out to the reporter and setting the record straight. "It's not as scary as they make it sound," she says.

Still, social media and mobile geolocation apps are in an infant stage and surely will advance.

"The issues will come as these services dramatically scale," says LaunchSquad's Farber. "We have an opportunity to be proactive. It's all being formed right now."

Top platforms Facebook Places

Launched: 2010

What: Allows Facebook users to check in at a location using the Facebook mobile phone app and then that location is publicized to the user's network of friends

Reach: Potentially all of the 500 million-plus Facebook users


Launched: 2009

What: Users check in at locations with Foursquare app on their mobile phone. They gain rewards for checking in at places and can share their location with other users. They can also opt in to have their location shared on Twitter or Facebook

Reach: Nearly 3 million users


Launched: 2006

What: A GPS-enabled mobile app that allows users to share where they are with friends in-network. Additional features allow users to opt in to have locations shared on other social networks, such as Twitter and Facebook

Reach: 4 million users

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