How to Control Your Privacy With Foursquare and Other Geoloaction Services

social media toolsGeolocation is one of the hottest trends in social networking today. Users enjoy connecting with friends at nearby locations. Businesses are beginning to take note of the opportunity to tie their brick-and-mortar locations to their online marketing.

In addition to the main local social networking applications—Foursquare and GowallaGoogle, Facebook and Twitter have added geolocation features to their services to tap into this trend.

As users provide more information about their location, serious privacy implications are beginning to surface. For instance, a Webroot study released in July 2010 found that more than half of survey respondents who used geolocation services were worried their privacy was at risk.

Privacy Problems

The first wave of criticism about the privacy implications of geolocation social networks followed the launch in February 2010 of Please Rob Me, which combined people’s physical location through geolocation services with data about their residence from other public data.

When people were “checked in” at other places, unscrupulous individuals could find out and take advantage through Please Rob Me, though the site’s founders said they were only trying to demonstrate the problems posed by sharing geolocation data.

In March 2010, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a lawsuit with the FTC alleging that Google violated people’s privacy by making geolocation data available to the general public in its Google Buzz product.

The geolocation privacy backlash continued with the launch of Facebook Places, which enabled users who had recently checked into a place to see all other users who had been there through the “Here Now” feature.

This launch prompted the American Civil Liberties Union to put out a data sheet on how people could protect their online privacy and voice concerns about the practice of listing physical locations through geolocation services.

Social Networks React

facebook place

An example of a Facebook Place

To assure users that participating in geolocation social networking was safe and controllable, social networks began to provide additional privacy controls. This was likely in response to the concern and potential litigation regarding privacy and by the spate of violence through Craigslist connections.

Twitter users can select whether to include their whereabouts for each message. Privacy advocates were never as keen to target it for criticism, though many of the same negatives exist for sharing location data in this way. Twitter also lets you delete your entire geolocation history, which makes users feel more comfortable with the choice to display location data.

In response to the privacy backlash, Google made the option to make contacts private more prominent. It also allowed users to block Buzz followers directly from profile pages.

Facebook addressed privacy generally after several separate privacy issues
arose over information-sharing settings, but has yet to make public statements about the implications of Facebook Places on privacy.

Potential Solutions


Face2Face is a geolocation social networking service that restricts location data to user-specified friends.

Startup geolocation companies are popping up to serve the supposed market need for a service with the best of both worlds. Once such company, face2face, markets itself as “a discreet way to let your friends know when you’re nearby.” It restricts geolocation data to specific friends set by the user, giving more control over the privacy question back to the end consumer.

Another way to protect against negative uses of geolocation data is to take precautions to avoid tying your current physical location to your home address. Jason Falls gave this sound advice in a column he did on safety tips for Gowalla and Foursquare.

In the Webroot study mentioned above, many users of social networks—geolocation social networks in particular—did not follow best practices to keep interactions on these networks safe. For example, 31% of survey respondents accepted friend requests from strangers. These types of shocking data points show that people are probably not treating online interactions with enough caution, especially those with a geolocation component.

Geolocation social networks do raise some privacy concerns worth noting, but prudent use of each service, including understanding how to properly establish privacy settings, clears up much of the concern. As long as you’re smart about it, geolocated interactions will stay as harmless as other online social interactions.

Location-based Social Network Users: What are ways you protect your privacy while enjoying these services? Have you ever had an issue with privacy on any of these services? Leave your comments in the box below.

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About the Author, Peter Wylie

Peter Wylie is lead researcher for Three Ships Media, an emerging media marketing company that specializes in using blogs and social networks to connect clients with target customers online. Other posts by »

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  • Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

    I’ve yet to have any issues, but I’m mindful. Common sense should rule. Don’t post where you don’t want people to know like your child’s school or other activities, your house, or your friends’ homes. Also, it is smart to check in when you are checking out of some place unless you want people to join you.

  • Jamie Gorman

    Great post Peter. I get this question a lot. Our clients are using Geo as a business tool – promoting their customers, displaying their knowledge of the area, etc… We caution them against publishing locations when they are gone on vacation to an “unsecure” audience. I figure if there is someone waiting with my info for my post that I am somewhere else, they probably already know enough to rob me! Also, many have talked about the potential, but I haven’t seen numbers for crimes that used geo service info. Does anyone have some statistcs?

  • Lauren McMullen

    I have avoided all Geolocation social network applications for the reasons you have noted. I think the social media is so “In the moment” so I think it will be hard to always avoid reference to places you don’t want out on the Internet. It is just so easy to get lax and forget my own rules so I have chosen to turn off all location applications.

  • Kristi Hines

    I just wrote about a post last week on location based safety tips. Some important ones include never checking into places I go regularly, checking in as I’m leaving (gets the update in without anyone having a chance of catching me there), or only checking in where I want to be found (like I did at Blog World).

    Also, it’s important to check your social settings, like in Facebook – don’t let friends check you into places, and hide your check-ins to show to friends only. Also, Plixi (formerly Tweetphoto) can tag your location when you take a photo on your mobile phone – check that setting to make sure it’s off.

    When it comes to geolocation services, I try to think worst-case scenario and go from there. Yes it’s a bit paranoid and likely never to happen, but I’d rather not be that one in a thousand who is affected negatively by a check-in.

  • Erik Hanson

    The Brave New World…How things have changed in merely a decade. I personally do not allow others to see where I’m at, however, I’m beginning to see more and more people doing it. While I’m 35, I can imagine that the 18 to 25 demographic find it very useful. It will all end up being a cost/benefit analysis. The cost is your privacy – the benefit will be savings/deals and more communication with friends/family.

  • Design Theory

    I’ve since been reluctant to always post my actual locations in Four Square. There’s only two locations I basically play that game for in battling for Mayor. I do at times worry about putting my location out there for the world to see and know when I’m not home. But I guess that’s what alarms are for. As for the other location games like fb places, I don’t get into those at all.

  • peterwylie

    Ann Marie,

    I completely agree. Thanks for commenting.


  • peterwylie


    I think this is prudent to note, but I don’t think it has become an issue yet. That’s why I wanted to write on the issue, before we start seeing scary statistics about this problem!

    Thanks for commenting,


  • peterwylie


    Sorry to hear that the privacy issues have caused you to abandon geo-located interactions, but I’m sure you’re not alone. I think that these networks will be really focused on this issue, and will launch protections for consumers so they can continue to expand.


  • peterwylie


    Those are helpful additional tips, thanks for passing them along.


  • peterwylie


    Thanks for sharing your input!


  • rick wion

    Great post with very practical advice. I often use a bulls eye analogy in setting up networks. Foursquare is my smallest network and I only accept offline friends that I would want to grab a beer with. Those are the only folks that I would trust with my location. Next ring out is Facebook. I’m only friends with folks on Facebook that I am friends with offline as well. Twitter is next ring out and my largest network.

  • Ann Marie van den Hurk, APR

    Peter, you are very much welcome. I think this is a topic we will be talking about for a while it goes mainstream.

  • SuzHOPkins

    Hey Peter – I’m actually going against your post and hoping that ppl actually share their where-abouts to get deals. I run a corner coffee shop in Toronto and we use a platform called Geotoko ( to run foursquare and gowalla specials and we depend on ppl to share their location and tweet about us to get a free cup of latte.

    In’t the whole point of using these location-based apps to over-share? Why would someone with a privacy concern use them in the first place?

  • SuzHOPkins

    Hey Peter – I’m actually going against your post and hoping that ppl actually share their where-abouts to get deals. I run a corner coffee shop in Toronto and we use a platform called Geotoko ( to run foursquare and gowalla specials and we depend on ppl to share their location and tweet about us to get a free cup of latte.

    In’t the whole point of using these location-based apps to over-share? Why would someone with a privacy concern use them in the first place?

  • Frank

    I employ someone just to check all this.

    Great stuff and very useful.

    Thank you

  • Frank

    I employ someone just to check all this.

    Great stuff and very useful.

    Thank you

  • fourtrace

    Guess foursquare users who connect their profiles
    to twitter would find this interesting:

  • Bradl


    did you had the chance to check ? It’s iPhone only I think, but takes geotagged image uploads completely anonymous and deletes them periodically.

  • Joyce Dierschke

    I just don’t see the upside at all for posting your location on the web. Guess I’m old fashioned, but if I wonder where my friends are or want them to know where I am, I send them a text. Am I missing something? Is there some great benefit worth the risk to personal safety and privacy?

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