The time I got creeped out by location-sharing technology

I’m not usually shy about sharing my personal data. When it comes to where I am, where I’ve been or where I’m going — on the Internet or in person — I’m typically okay with sharing it, as long as I have a say over who in my network gets to see it.

I’m much pickier about which friend requests I accept for tools that display my physical location, for example, than I am for other social networks. But in general, I’m not creeped out by select people knowing where I am. Location tools have come in handy so many times to meet up with people I otherwise would have missed seeing (as in, “Hey, you’re there? I’m right around the corner!).

But something totally odd happened to me last week. For what might be the first time, a location-sharing tool felt sort of intrusive.

I visited my best friend out of state, and we needed to find each other at a crowded spot one night. So her husband suggested I download the app Find My Friends. When I was done with my other plans, I could show up at a crowded outdoor concert and see exactly where my friends were sitting. I added just those two people as friends in the app, and it did indeed help us meet up at the concert. Yay, technology.

A few days later, after I’d returned home to Missouri, my BFF accomplished something major, and I was trying to figure out a way to be a part of her celebration. I wondered if I could figure out from her husband where they’d be having dinner and send over a bottle of wine or something.

Then I remembered the Find My Friends app. It showed me that my friends were at a restaurant. I felt all empowered by my knowledge. I called the restaurant and described my friends. The wait staff could pick them out. The couple had a third person with them, who I assumed was my friend’s mom. The manager and I worked out that I would contribute to their dinner. He went up to the table and told them what I was up to. (Turns out they’d already settled the tab, but the plan was good in theory.)

The third person didn’t turn out to be my friend’s mom, though. It was a professional connection, who I think was picking up their tab. So I imagine my trying to jump in could have been a bit awkward.

And afterward, I felt totally creepy. Here’s why, I think.

1. I wasn’t in touch with the situation they were in. It might not have been an appropriate time for me to inject myself into their event, and explaining what was going on to the person they were with might have been uncomfortable. I wasn’t there.

2. The app was meant for one situation (the concert), and I used it in another. It came as a surprise to me that I could know their location, and I bet it came as a surprise to them that I was acting on that information. These are dear friends, and I’m not worried about privacy in the typical sense. I can’t envision a scenario in which I would want to keep my location secret from these folks. But I also find it odd that people whose location doesn’t affect my day-to-day life could at any point pop (even virtually) into my immediate surroundings.

It’d be different with my husband (who’s not at all surprised when I use Find My iPhone to see where he is on his list of errands around town). It’s the unsuspecting nature of it with my long-distance friends, I think. I was weirded out by having surprised them and inserted myself into their experience. It made me feel sort of stalkery.

In general, I like choosing to make some of my locations public with a select group of people. (I’m at a movie, I’m at a landmark, I just took a walk on this route, I’m at the library, etc.) I’m less comfortable with having all my movements tracked. It’s why Google Latitude didn’t work for me.

I can think of all kinds of ways I want the news biz to evolve in terms of location. So much of the information we provide becomes more relevant based on where people are — here’s what happened at your location on this date in history, here are reviews to help you choose what to eat or what movie to see, etc.

And it’s a two-way street — I want to be able to use peoples’ location in crowdsourcing. I’d love to ask people who show up at a school for feedback on a new curriculum, or ask people at the bus station to weigh in on new bus routes.

But it needs to be clear to folks which location information they’re sharing, and with whom.

What’s your relationship with location-tracking tools?

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