Friday, 11 June 2010 Anna Salleh ABC
New social networking technologies that enable people to track each other's location are challenging everyday notions of trust, says one information technology researcher.
PhD researcher Roba Abbas from the University of Wollongong is presenting her research on "location based social networking" at two conferences this week.
"There are fundamental trust issues where this technology is concerned," says Abbas.
Applications such as Google Latitude and Foursquare are examples of such tracking technology, which can be used on a mobile phone.
It allows people to monitor the location of their partners, friends, relatives and others in real time on an interactive map.
In a focus group study, to be presented to the 9th International Conference on Mobile Business in Greece this week, Abbas found the majority of participants would not adopt the tracking technology.
Participants were concerned about such things as the potential for unwanted surveillance, invasion of privacy, and the ability of the technology to undermine trust in relationships.
A separate pilot study, involving 20 to 25-year-olds asked to carry commercially-available GPS data loggers, revealed some of the scenarios that might arise.
"While the data logging devices were initially perceived as a novelty by participants, significant concerns emerged after further consideration and extensive utilisation of the devices," says Abbas.
Keeping track of loved ones
In the pilot study, participants were interviewed after a period of carrying the GPS devices with them wherever they went, keeping a manual diary of their location and observing the difference.
In some cases, people thought tracking technology could be useful for providing evidence to a partner on their whereabouts.
"Today I was supposed to finish work at 9, but being Easter I didn't get out until 10. When I got to my boyfriend's house he questioned me about where I'd been," said one participant.
"I was able to say 'check the [device] if you don't believe me'. I then realised that in a situation where you had to prove you had been somewhere, the [device] could be used as evidence."
One participant also thought a small version of the device could be used to covertly collect evidence against a potentially guilty partner.
But participants became worried when they discovered the loggers were not always accurate, sometimes recording their location a street away from where they actually were.
Abbas says they were uneasy about the possibility of inaccurate location information being used against someone.
Another participant said, "The [device] has the potential to ruin people's lives because it has the potential to give an incorrect location. For example, if a husband were to track his wife's car, she may have gone shopping, but it's showing the location of the car in the street next to the shopping centre, this could cause many trust issues to arise unnecessarily."
Abbas' research has also found concerns about the ability of people to tamper with the tracking technology and "lie" about where they are.
Accuracy aside, people were concerned about the potential for the technology to erode trust among friends and family, says Abbas, who presented the pilot study results at this week's IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society conference in Wollongong.
"You're working towards trusting a technology rather than trusting someone you're in a relationship with," she says.
Abbas says while technological solutions such as privacy settings that allow one to hide locations would go some way to alleviating some concerns, human trust issues are difficult to account for.
"These devices provide you with information on where someone is but it doesn't provide you with information on why they're there and what they're doing," she says.
"It doesn't actually tell you what a person's motives are."
She says this means "inferences and misrepresentations" can be easily made by users.
Abbas PhD research is being supervised by Dr Katina Michael and funded by the UOW and the Australian Research Council.
She says information from her research will be provided to industry to help in the development of "ethically sound location based services".
Citation: Anna Salleh, June 11, 2010, "Tracking apps could 'undermine trust'", ABC Science Online, http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/06/11/2922784.htm