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by Ray Carlson

Q: How does my smart phone know my location? Is it risky for the phone to have that information?

A: Most smart phones include a GPS that checks with satellites to identify the phone’s location. In addition, the phone’s software recognizes the location of the nearest cell tower and WIFI networks. A lot of helpful apps have been developed to take advantage of that location information. Apps can identify nearby gas stations, restaurants, stores, ATMs, the local weather, or track your phone when it is lost or stolen.
Several apps sell location information to companies interested in knowing routes that people travel. These programs usually do not sacrifice your privacy because they do not include any identifying information. Each app, as part of the setup process, is required to tell the user what information it collects. Make sure you are comfortable with what that screen says.

Some apps can be particularly clever but add risks associated with loss of privacy and poor judgment. An example is Waze which is free and provides spoken navigation directions but also monitors traffic by having users connect with the Waze website while driving. The program tracks the phone’s movement to assess how fast traffic is moving. A map shows average traffic speeds and any accident, obstacles, etc. that users identify. The user provides a username which appears on the Waze map along with the car’s speed or problems. In areas with a small number of users, people who know your username can see if you are delayed or stopped.

Loss of privacy only occurs if a person broadcasts her or his username widely, but the police can always get access to your identity. Poor judgment often creates other problems. If a user does not turn the program off when they stop, the program incorrectly reports a traffic problem at that location. The app also includes games that can distract drivers. Most suggest that the benefits of using the phone’s location information to operate such apps outweigh the risks, but considering the implications of poor judgment is warranted.

Published: Courier 6/17/12 - Page 3C