When it comes to privacy worries, the tech industry has a message for consumers: It's in your hands.
Representatives from companies such as Verizon, Google, Facebook and Foursquare Labs convened at the Federal Communications Commission's headquarters to try to allay privacy concerns about location-based services. At issue was whether consumers using location-based services (LBS) on their computers or mobile devices had enough built-in protections available to keep their personal data private while still reaping the benefits that LBS bring.
The companies' answer, unsurprisingly, was yes.
Today's hearing came as big-name tech companies such as Facebook and Google have come under fire from regulators and law enforcement officials over various concerns regarding user privacy. Earlier this month, for instance, Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen wrote Facebook a letter expressing worry over its "Tag Suggestions" facial recognition software that does not have an opt-in feature that specifically requires user consent before being potentially tagged by others.
"The lack of an opt-in process for Facebook users is troubling because unknowing consumers may have their photos tagged and matched using facial recognition software without their express consent, potentially exposing them to unwelcome attention and loss of privacy," Jepsen said recently.
But the companies at the panel went out of their way to tout the myriad options that users have for protecting their privacy and said that many of the features on their products required active consumer consent in order to function. Tim Sparapani, the director of public policy for Facebook, said that his company has been adding features designed to give users more control over whether others can tag them in certain pictures of locations.
"On Facebook, the hallmark of privacy is user control," he said. "We allow people to delete any check-ins they don't want to be made public. So if someone tags you at a place and you say, 'I don't want people to know I was at that bar,' or maybe, 'I shouldn't have taken that coffee break because my boss could find out about it,' you can then untag it."
Sparapani also said that every company that offered location-based services should "give people the opportunity to share what they want, when they want and with whomever they want" without fear that unwanted viewers might be looking at it.
Jon Steinback, the director of marketing for Foursquare Labs, also emphasized that users have to explicitly decide whether or not they want to share their information whenever they check in to a given location.
"When someone wants to check in [to Foursquare] they need to press a button that says 'Check in,'" he said. "Then they have to select where they are and whether they want to share that. We then broadcast that to the friends they want to share it with."
Alan Davidson, a director of public policy for Google, defended his company from charges that it collects location data from its users by stating that any location-based information it receives is made anonymous to protect users' privacy. He also said that the company's Android mobile operating system was designed to make it clear to users when applications were seeking user location information.
"What happens when an application wants to get access to your location is that Android will notify you that the app wants access and will ask you if you want to proceed," he said. "We want to give people a lot of transparency with regard to privacy and we want to give them the option to opt in."
The panelists also expressed their hope that they could eventually win over their users' trust so that utilizing location-based services would soon become as common as using an ATM card. Davidson said the bottom line is that consumers are using these applications despite whatever privacy qualms they have because they're deriving benefits from them.
"There's going to be a tremendous amount of value for application providers and for users," he said. "The reason we see an explosion of these applications is because people are getting something out of it."
Steinback was similarly bullish on the future of LBS applications but he also tempered his enthusiasm by recognizing that companies need to respect users' privacy and earn their trust.
"We've seen growth continue to go up over time and I hope we don't screw it up," he said.
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