Location Services 

A location-based service uses the geographical location of your mobile phone and other mobile devices that are equipped with location abilities (e.g. Nintendo DS) to provide services such as traffic and weather updates, local information (e.g. where the nearest cash point is), entertainment, advertising and friend finder and to help the emergency services find you if you contact them when you’re in trouble.

There are several types of location-based services:

  1. Single user location services that are initiated by users to help find local information, such as traffic and weather updates and local places and services. No location information is shared with other people when you use these services
  2. Multi-user location services, where the user initiates the sharing of their location with other users of the service
  3. Passive location services, where the person being located is not using the locating service themselves, but they may have consented to allow another person or service to locate them (e.g. they could have consented offline or via text)

Although they’ve been around for a while, location-based services have become more popular recently. Their success has been driven by:

  • The rise in the number of mobiles that come with GPS and/or Wi-Fi access, such as the iPhone, BlackBerry Bold, Nokia and other smart phones. Both GPS and Wi-Fi identify and communicate the location of your service without your mobile network operator being aware of it
  • The ability to download location-based mobile applications (often called apps) from the internet and to use websites and browsers that offer location capabilities on your phone. The companies that develop these apps, websites and browsers – from large brands like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! to start-ups like Foursquare – can then find you

These new location-based services aren’t always provided by or controlled by mobile networks – they have the ability to identify your location through a combination of mobile networks, GPS and Wi-Fi hot spots. There are 1000s of these applications available and they’re increasingly being integrated into online social networks so that you can share your location with friends.

What do I need to know about location services? 

While the availability of location information brings many benefits, there is some debate about whether location services pose a privacy and safety risk to mobile users – younger ones in particular – because, by their nature, they track the user’s whereabouts.

Did you know?
According to Ofcom, nearly a fifth of parents of 12-15 year olds are concerned that their children share their location from their mobile

Until recently, the focus of location-based services was on personal location and navigation with the user asking the question ‘Where am I?’ Now, the focus is moving towards more social ‘Where are you?’ and ‘Here I am!’ services, where users opt in to services within a mapping or social networking application. Such applications enable groups of friends to meet at short notice or young people to let their parents know they have arrived safely at their destination, for example.

You might have heard of Google Latitude, a feature introduced on Google Maps in 2009 that can be accessed on both mobile phones and PCs, for example. It lets you share your location and see where your friends and family are on a digital map.

This type of application can be very exciting for young people as it helps them manage their social networks but it does bring some potential risks if not managed correctly.

Your son or daughter could use this kind of location service alongside their Facebook or MySpace profiles, for example, so that everyone on their ‘friends’ list could see where they are at any time. In fact, Facebook launched an integrated location services product – called Facebook Places – in late 2010, which lets users “check-in” and share their location with their online friends.

If some of their online ‘friends’ are people they’ve never met in the real world, this could mean that strangers know their location to within a few metres and might even be able to work out where they live or go to school (as these will be their most regular locations). For this reason, many of these services have a minimum age in order to protect younger users.

A number of companies also offer location-based services that use locations provided by the mobile network to help you to keep track of your child via their mobile without having to phone or text them. If they’re based in the UK, these companies must comply with an industry Code of Practice before the mobile network operator will support their service.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that this kind of child location service can only locate the SIM card in the mobile, not necessarily your child – if they’ve gone out and left their mobile at home, for example, the location will show up as home. Also, for the service to work, their mobile has to be switched on and logged on to the network. If it’s switched off or out of range, it’s only possible to locate where their SIM card was the last time it was logged on to their mobile network.

Because some location services are a way of finding out where someone is, they can be abused. You might be worried that strangers could use location-based services to locate your child and discover their identity without their knowledge, for example. It’s therefore crucial that your children are aware of the risks of location tracking.

What action can I take? 

Stress to your child the importance of keeping their mobile number private and looking after their mobile handset

Explain why they should be honest about their age when signing up for Web/mobile applications and services – some location-based services have a minimum age to help protect younger mobile users

If your child wants to sign up for an internet or mobile location service, check that they’re old enough to join the service, read and discuss the privacy policy with them, and show them how to make the most of built-in privacy features

Explain that location-based services are not just about where your child is, they’re also connected to their identity – they could help other people track where they go on a regular basis (home, school etc.)

Teach your child to never say ‘yes’ to a stranger who is trying to find them through a location service (they might receive an unsolicited message from someone, for example)

Explain to your son or daughter that if they use a location service such as that offered by Google Latitude alongside their social networking profile, everyone on their ‘friends’ list will know where they are at any time – underline that it’s important to only allow their real friends who they know and trust to locate them

Stress that they should choose to have a reminder of who’s locating them from the service provider on a regular basis

Explain that they should never accept a mobile from anyone (known or unknown to them) without your agreement, as it might be pre-installed with passive location services

Check with your child which applications their child is running on their mobile and see if any of them appear to be location-aware. On most mobile handsets, you should be able to go to the main menu, then look in the applications folder, open up any apps you’re not sure about and run them. You should be given the option to delete any applications you’re not happy about

Encourage your son or daughter to check with you before accepting a service over their mobile, especially if they have received an unsolicited (spam) message

Don’t worry about what will happen in an emergency if your child cannot access location services because of an age bar – the location of their mobile will still be known by their network provider and will still be passed to the emergency services if they make an emergency call

If you decide to sign up for a passive location (tracking) service for your child, explain to them how it works, make sure they consent to its use, and advise them not to allow anyone else to track them as that might place them at risk but don’t forget that these kind of services are intended to complement, not be a substitute for, parental supervision

If you or your child wants to cancel a location-based service, check with your/their network provider how this can be done

If you’re really worried about location-based services, don’t give your child a mobile with GPS or Wi-Fi on it or, if they already have a mobile, disable GPS or Wi-Fi on their handset