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The Ethics of Location Sharing..

I listened to the latest podcast in the series produced by The Australian newspaper over the weekend, all are highly recommended but The Lighthouse was of particular interest.

It documents the tragic disappearance of a Belgian Backpacker last May in Bryon Bay a seaside town which is both a popular tourist destination and upmarket residential neighbourhood .

Having spent a few hours at a nightclub Theo Hayez disappeared into the night and has remained missing.

Never Lost ?

As you might expect of any backpacker in 2019 Theo was an avid user of his smartphone, and a key element of the podcasts narrative is an explanation of how his family was able to obtain access to his location history and what information this provided to the investigators of his disappearance both professional and amateur alike.

There is a lot of detail and colourful characters involved and I highly recommend taking the time to listen.

Instead of limited closed circuit television and eyewitness sightings investigators had a minute by minute trace of his movements from leaving the Cheeky Monkey’s Nightclub proceeding across town, through an area of bush before arriving at Tallow Beach where for an unexplained reason location services on his phone was switched off.

A final ping from his phone on a nearby cell site at Cape Byron in the early hours of the following morning was the last communication made from the device.

In the podcast and in the press there was criticism that the location information created by Theo’s phone was not made available earlier in the investigation, actually his family had in effect hacked into his account to obtain his location history by taking over his account using a backup email address.

Under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

This raises an interesting ethical point, under what circumstances would it be appropriate to share someones location to a third party?

If that third party is the emergency services is the question ethically any different?

For very good reasons your location data is perceived as the very sensitive personal information and it’s collection and storage is strictly managed.

There are legal mechanisms in most jurisdictions for this type of information to be obtained by the Police for example, and the New South Wales Police appeared to be followed these guidelines but they do take a considerable time.

Theo was an adult and if he had even thought about it, perhaps would not have wanted his parents tracking his location while enjoying his holiday in Australia ?

Break the Glass protocol

Perhaps what is needed in a protocol for emergency location sharing, in limited emergency circumstances, location information could be shared with law enforcement agencies – formally this could be something mobile phone owners could opt in to using another switch in your system settings… to be clear no such system exists at present.

Of course it is also difficult to identify the circumstances that would be appropriate… there may be occasions when anyone might just want to “go off the grid” and indeed how might such a protocol be initiated ?

Informally of course we can make our own individual arrangements, most common smartphones today have a built in mechanism to share your location with chosen friends and family but usage on such systems is limited, as for many people they are just too creepy!

Another approach might be to share your login details with someone you trust for use in an emergency – only open this sealed envelope if something bad has happened ?

There are no simple answers, and of course the outcomes for Theo and for others who go missing every day might not be any different if timely location data was made available, however we should I think discuss the options ?

What do you think ?

3 replies on “The Ethics of Location Sharing..”

Now that Theo is not being found, information about him is being widely circulated. The privacy that he probably craved for when the situation was normal may have been his undoing. Cultural differences too dictate levels of privacy and hence protocols can only be established at individual levels. As for the smartphones, their accelerometers can and do record sudden and rapid acceleration which may indicate its movement in case this data can be accessed. Or this sudden acceleration can trigger a privacy over ride/switch on location services if switched off in case the operator is incapacitated or unable to key in the privacy over ride protocols if she or he had engaged them (sudden acceleration could be an indicator of and accident). Just clutching at straws, but hoping that things had panned out differently. Did privacy deny closure to the family?

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