Mobile App Location Sharing Brings Awesome Opportunities, Privacy Fears


Geolocation data—the information that tags your real-world location when you are dallying in cyberspace—is essential for many mobile applications. It allows people to ride-share via Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc., hunt augmented-reality beasts in Niantic Inc.’s Pokemon GO, and find the closest (but also most awesome) taco place using Yelp Corp.’s app. But giving away location information concerns some consumers worried about their privacy and security.

Snap Inc. caught some backlash from users of its SnapChat social media app, after it added an interactive “Snap Map” that shows followers where they can find users. The feature raised privacy concerns for parents, particularly those with young children who use the app but wouldn’t clearly understand consent issues in privacy policies and terms of service. Parents worried that there was the potential for strangers to be able to follow the location of their children.

The Federal Trade Commission enforces the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which protects children’s privacy and regulates how apps operate with users under the age of 13. COPPA requires parental consent for collecting information from children under 13, confirming that parental consent is one of the stickiest challenges of COPPA compliance.  Last year the FTC settled with two app development companies that agreed to pay $360,000 in a non-fault settlement of allegations they had failed to gain parental consent.

In addition to the FTC, states have pursued COPPA enforcement actions as well.  Last year, Viacom Inc., Mattel Inc. Hasbro Inc., and JumpStart Games Inc. settled New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman’s (D) allegations that the companies allowed third-party vendors to illegally track children’s online activities. 

State lawmakers and attorneys general working with app developers have been seeking solutions to ease consumer concerns. When Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) served as her state’s attorney general, she championed efforts to work with app developers to adopt principles to protect privacy, particularly for children.

The Illinois “Geolocation Privacy Protection Act,” which lawmakers recently sent to the governor, would require app developers to get consumer consent in advance before collecting and sharing their geolocation data.

A Snapchat spokesperson told Bloomberg BNA that the company complies with COPPA and has a team actively looking for underage users and terminating their accounts.

Snapchat has a parental guide that shows parents how to guide their child through the app, with an emphasis on how to protect privacy.

“The safety of our community is very important to us and we want to make sure that all Snapchatters, parents, and educators have accurate information about how the Snap Map works,” the Snapchat spokesperson said. 

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