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Geo what?? Canadians weigh in on location privacy

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A recent research report titled Research Related to Privacy and the Use of Geospatial Information explores Canadian’s awareness of the uses of location (or geospatial) data and their concerns about privacy when it comes to sharing their location-linked personal information.

The research examined Canadian’s concerns with the privacy of their personal information generally, level of comfort with sharing location-linked personal information, level of awareness and use of location-tracking devices such as Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and use and comfort level with online mapping tools.

This report was commissioned by Natural Resources Canada through its GeoConnections initiative. A couple of highlights

It was confirmed that respondents had a very low general understanding of what “geospatial data” is and struggled when trying to define terms such as “location-based information” or “location-based personal information”.

The study found that generally speaking, respondents are concerned about the privacy of their personal information (with over 80% stating they are “concerned” or “very concerned”).

When it comes to sharing location-linked personal information, control over the information being shared and the overall purpose for sharing the information were the two key drivers of comfort. Respondents felt most comfortable if they have a high degree of control over the sharing of their information and the reason for sharing their location-linked personal information was related to a public good such as enhanced public safety or improved health care.

And what made Canadians uncomfortable? Canadians became uncomfortable when they had no control over the sharing of their location-linked personal information and when their location-linked personal information was being used for economic reasons or targeted marketing.

There was support for the role of Government in the regulation of geospatial information. For example, with regard to individual’s real-time movements, over 68% of respondents thought it was important for the Government of Canada to regulate the collection and sharing of location-linked personal information. The majority of respondents (74%) thought it was important for the Government of Canada to regulate images of private residences appearing on internet mapping tools.

Who do Canadians trust with their location-linked personal information? Level of trust was highest for medical institutions (58%) followed by federal and provincial governments (46%). Interestingly, trust levels for federal and provincial governments were somewhat higher than for municipal government (35%) — proponents of the smart grid may have a bit of work to do.

And who was trusted least? Social networking sites (6%), which is curious considering the sheer volume of personal information we voluntary give up to these sites (including increasing amounts of location-linked personal information).

It is notable that this research was completed just prior to Google’s Streetview going live in Canada. With the launch of Streetview and the ever growing availability of new, innovative and useful location-based services such as friend finders, local search and restaurant recommenders, it will be interesting to see whether geospatial information evolves into a top-of-mind privacy issue for Canadians.

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