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Welcome to the website of the Internet and Intellectual Property Justice Clinic, a University of San Francisco School of Law clinical program that provides legal assistance to parties in intellectual property matters. For more information, see the "About Us" page.

Our website includes commentary from our students on cutting-edge internet law and intellectual property topics. Those posts are listed below, and more are archived under "Pages" on the right. Enjoy!

Location-Aware Services & Privacy

By Andrea S.

The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a story about a new website called PleaseRobMe.com. Soon, nearly every popular blog on the web was featuring the story and a link to the site.

PleaseRobMe.com mocks users of FourSquare who connect their location “check-ins” to their Twitter status updates. FourSquare is a location aware service that allows users to tell friends the address of which Starbucks, movie theater, or restaurant they are at. PleaseRobMe.com demonstrates the potential dangers of this technology by allowing users to enter a city or a specific username and get updates on exact locations of other users.

While PleaseRobMe.com focuses on FourSquare and Twitter, there are plenty of other services that have the same function. For instance, Yelp iPhone application users can use the “Check-It” feature to post their current locations to their Facebook status updates. The program even automatically announces if you’re a “regular,” or frequent patron of a specific business.

Ultimately, the developers of PleaseRobMe.com disabled the search feature and replaced it with two articles: one from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the other from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). The articles highlight how location-aware internet services like FourSquare can present a number of problems. One is social; having friends, family or your significant other know your location at all times in undesirable, even if you are doing nothing wrong.

Another problem is emerging, at least in the U.K., is that people who use such services are seen as an insurance risk. Insurers who protect people’s homes and other personal property are concerned about the public’s increasing willingness to reveal extremely personal information. While one small piece of information seems inconsequential, the totality of an individual’s posts could reveal a good deal about their routines and property.

Then there are the legal concerns that come from broadcasting one’s location and activities. In private disputes, such as insurance fraud or problems between employee/employer, location-aware services pose a number of potential problems. For instance, if an individual is on disability, and presumably homebound, too many public announcements of outside location may be cause for a challenge to the benefits – even if not a violation of the benefit program rules.

As for criminal offenses, posting ones location may waive potential 4th Amendment rights. While there are usually some procedural barriers for determining someone’s whereabouts at a specific time, the same is not true for information that is public and observable. Broadcasting real time location for anyone on the internet to read, gives up any reasonable expectation of privacy.

Of course, quick access to this information does not always have a negative result. There are instances where such information could help law enforcement or allow an accused to establish innocence. The question is whether or not citizens want to open themselves up to a system with less protections than those currently enjoyed.

Despite the potential dangers of such services, a recent MSNBC.com article says that location-aware social networking may be a new trend. While it may be a powerful, new, and up-and-coming technology, it has a lot of troubling features. Moreover, it seems unnecessary. Restaurant and shopping reviews can be posted without it being in real time or announcing the reviewer’s current location. Additionally, there are private communication tools that allow friends to find each other. The bottom line is: for the time being social media users will continue to use location based services, like FourSquare, until the negative consequences of surrendering locational privacy hits home.