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Location Technologies: Mobility, Surveillance and Privacy

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Queen's University




This research report examines new privacy concerns created by Location Based Services, their underlying technologies and the advent of real-time tracking. The purpose of the research is to draw attention to current concerns about tracking individuals using such technologies, including what manufacturers and service providers are doing to ensure compliance with privacy legislation in Canada. The report also considers whether corporate strategies resonate with public expectations of such services.

Information sources include interviews that took place in 2005, mainly in Ontario, with industry experts. Secondary information sources included media reports, industry websites, published surveys and company privacy policies.

The report defines location technologies as those that can pinpoint coordinates, continuously and in real time. The principle location technologies considered in the report are cellular telephone location technologies, some of which are network-based and some of which require the use of Global Positioning System (GPS)-equipped handsets. Other GPS enabled technologies such as vehicle navigation systems are also addressed. The report does not include other tracking technologies such as active Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags and close-circuit television (CCTV) systems, as they are not capable of generating continuous, real-time, accurate location information about an individual.

The report considers market forecasts, market drivers and impediments to growth of location-based services, and the privacy issues involved in such services. The authors state that major wireless carriers and location-based service providers in Canada will likely be proactive in anticipating and addressing public and legal concerns about the appropriate collection, use and disclosure of customer information but may not invest the resources needed to head off potential problems in the area of data security.

According to the authors, the nature of location information will enable a more comprehensive picture of individual and collective patterns of movement which will invite the creation of new algorithms designed to make inferences about the potential relationships between mobility and identity. The report also notes that location data is being stored for future marketing use to target advertising to consumers and to gather information concerning the mobility of populations, much of which involves the sophisticated use of anonymous, aggregate data to categorize consumers into specific target groups. The authors stress that, while privacy legislation such as PIPEDA is clearly necessary to protect the rights of individuals, it is not designed to deal with commercial social sorting practices made possible through use of anonymous aggregate data.

The report includes recommendations for future research into a number of variables that influence privacy attitudes towards location technologies, including the role played by government, industry and the media. It suggests the need for comparative studies of location technologies with other countries having fairly dense urban populations and widespread cell phone use. It also suggests further investigation into the accuracy of predictions made about business and technology developments by marketing research firms; the vulnerabilities of private and public sector data storage and management, including location data; and the issues of media convergence in light of traditional government policy approaches to various mass media and communications media.

This document is available in the following language(s):

English only

OPC Funded Project

This project received funding support through the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Contributions Program. The opinions expressed in the summary and report(s) are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada. Summaries have been provided by the project authors. Please note that the projects appear in their language of origin.

Contact Information

Queen's University
99 University Avenue
Kingston, Ontario
K7L 3N6

Tel: (613) 533-2000

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