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EU-Funded Study Warns of GPS Phone Privacy Concerns

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At a time when privacy issues are higher on the news agenda than ever, the EU funded Network of Excellence FIDIS (Future of Identity in the Information Society) is urging users to safeguard their digital identity and privacy, especially when using mobile technologies. The team is particularly concerned that, in the wake of Apple's Thanks a Billion' campaign to celebrate the billionth download from the App Store, consumers are still not aware of the potential privacy issues involved with these technologies.

For five years, the EU-sponsored Network of Excellence FIDIS has been investigating the implications of the ‘new era of information disclosure' that technology is making possible.

To discover the kind of information that can be revealed about a person just by knowing their location, FIDIS researchers based in the UK, Germany and Belgium, led by Dr Mark Gasson of the University of Reading, were fitted with GPS enabled tracking devices, which have recorded their every move since March. Having observed the results, the team is concerned that the data does not simply reveal where you have been, but also exposes aspects of you and your private life that you may not realise. While data-share issues with mobile phones have been noted by privacy campaigners, FIDIS says that it is concerned that consumers are still not aware of growing concerns over the trend of GPS-enabled mobile phones.

FIDIS report that the smaller pieces of information gathered via mobile GPS devices – like where you live, when you go to work, how often you socialise or who you go for coffee with – can be aggregated to create a fuller ‘behavioural profile' of the user. By revealing whether you go to the gym, how often you exercise, where you eat and how often you go to bars and pubs, it's possible to put together a picture of the lifestyle you lead - information that, if passed on to third parties such as health insurance companies, could be used against you.

With Nokia forecasting that 50% of its phones shipped this year will be equipped with GPS, and Apple reaching a billion downloads on its App store after only nine months, FIDIS says that consumers are embracing the trend of GPS-enabled mobiles, without ensuring that their information is safe.

However, it is worth noting that no mobile network operator, or apps supplier is thought to be routinely storing and analysing this sort of information.

"This information is of course extremely useful for companies aiming to produce targeted advertising, and of course many of us would gladly receive customised drinks offers when we're heading to a local coffee shop," says study participant and researcher Denis Royer from the Chair of Mobile Business and Multilateral Security at Goethe University Frankfurt. "However, if users are targeted based on their inferred lifestyle, which restaurants they visit, or how much alcohol they seem to drink, their own information could potentially be used against them."

"Location information isn't considered sensitive data, and as such it's possible for companies to use it as long as you give consent," notes Legal Researcher and study participant Eleni Kosta from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. "The trouble is that when you're downloading the latest application to your phone that will tell you where the best restaurants or busiest clubs that you may like are based on the type of places you‘ve been before, you may not read the terms and conditions but simply tick the ‘OK' box. This puts you at risk."

"We want mobile users to be aware of the wealth of information they can potentially give away just by agreeing to disclose their location," says Gasson. "Real-time commercial and social networking services which use location history to better understand the user are coming very soon, and these will offer very real benefits to the user. However we can't stress enough the need to be aware of what services you're using on your phone and exactly what further uses of the information you might be consenting to when you agree to use the service. Nobody wants to read the legal text, but it's there to defend your privacy – and while this data isn't yet being used, developments in the mobile technology industry including user customised services, and everything that comes with it, suggest that this isn't far away."

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