Inside 1to1:Privacy

Putting Privacy First

May 1, 2009

The chief operating officer of location-based social network Loopt says that in designing privacy and security into the product, his company will never have to choose between business growth and strong privacy protections.

By Larry Dobrow


When location-based social networking services like Loopt and Belysio started to surge in popularity last year, some members of the privacy community ripped them on general principle. The reasoning seemed to go something like this: any service which makes real-time location information available to a range of individuals is rife for potential abuse, by shady miscreants (unstable exes, persistent suitors) and the government alike. The doubters acknowledged that users of these services voluntarily signed up for them, but at the same time they doubted that most had given enough thought to the potential privacy pitfalls.

As it turns out, they didn't have to. While the location information compiled and circulated by Loopt, Belysio and others could possibly be used for nefarious purposes if it falls into the wrong hands, both services (as well as a few smaller upstarts offering similar networking tools) have gone out of their way to highlight the possible privacy abuses and work with advocacy groups and others to minimize them.

Take Loopt as an example. The service lets mobile-phone users view where friends are located and what they're doing, via detailed local maps. The idea is that such information will facilitate spontaneous meet-ups and the quickie sharing of tips on everything from bands to restaurants.

By design, the service is casual. Its privacy practices are anything but.

Loopt's privacy/security page answers a great majority of the questions one might have about such an offering. It notes both the obvious (that Loopt is a permission-based service and users have complete control over who can access their information) and the slightly less obvious (that users will receive frequent reminders that their physical location is being shared). The more formal privacy notice touches on some of the slightly dicier aspects of the service--namely, that Loopt will share information with government authorities when required to do so by law and that marketers and other third parties will not be able to access location information unless the user has specifically okayed it.

Brian Knapp, Loopt's chief operating officer and the individual who oversees its legal affairs and privacy-related issues, stresses that the company understood from the get-go how the information it conveys might be abused. "Location is obviously very, very sensitive information. We get that," he says. "As a result, we've always had a 'privacy by design' philosophy. We've built privacy into the service via the product-development process. It was one of the first priorities, from the engineers on down."

Along those lines, Loopt's privacy settings are simple to navigate: If a user only wants to receive messages from and share location data with four people, he can coordinate this through a few clicks (either online or via phone). It's nigh impossible to add a friend by accident, given the automatic prompts.

Alan Chapell, president of privacy consultancy Chapell & Associates, credits organizations like Loopt for taking few chances with privacy and security. "I can't speak specifically to their policies, but in a broad sense they had a difficult challenge. Some people would think 'oh, it gives you information on exactly where somebody is' and dismiss it out of hand," he notes. "That there haven't been too many people yelling about it is probably a sign that they've done things in a responsible way, where there wouldn't be too many objections."

Knapp acknowledges that Loopt received many inquiries along those lines in its early days. To preemptively combat any accusations about privacy and security, the company ran its policies by groups ranging from the Electronic Frontier Foundation to the National Network on Domestic Violence; Knapp says many of their comments and suggestions were incorporated into the privacy/security policy. Too, he notes that Loopt has strived to "reduce friction" with law-enforcement groups, making sure the service is always on call for location/information requests.

"It's a perpetual balancing act like it is with anything else," Knapp adds. "What we wanted to do was go above and beyond what would be 'required,' in some sense, from day one. We knew that if we put enough emphasis on [privacy and security] from the start, we'd never have to choose between growing the business and making sure we have strong privacy policies."