One’s live location is often regarded as one of the most sensitive pieces of information our phones emit. When it was revealed that Uber continued to track its customers locations for an entire week after their rides, Uber came under intense criticism. The move was regarded as a blatant invasion of privacy, despite Uber defending its actions in the name of improving its user experience (by tracking the users, Uber said, it could better predict the riding habits of its customers and offer them quicker service in the future).
Google keeps detailed location logs for all of their users (who haven’t opted out), and does so regardless of whether their apps are in use. Google offers an account dashboard where the location history is accessible, and I have personally found that most people disable this location tracking when its existence is brought to their attention. People care about their location, and they are aware of its sensitivity.
By way of their phones, people reveal their locations to corporations every day. Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram all track its users’ locations in the name of product personalization and ad targeting. Still, users often find this tracking problematic and disable it when it is brought to their attention, as demonstrated by the Uber incident. Indeed, people are often uncomfortable sharing their live location with faceless corporations. To have their location shared with other people would be an entirely different level of exposure and would be regarded as an invasion of even greater magnitude.
Snapchat’s latest feature—the “Snapmap”, as it has come to be nicknamed—comes as a great surprise, then. The Snapmap is a map of the locations of all of one’s Snapchat friends. A live, real-time map of the location of all of one’s Snapchat friends who have used the app in the last eight hours. Fortunately, it’s possible to opt out of the Snapmap, and it’s also possible to share one’s location with only select users. Still, the Snapmap is dangerous: because less vigilant smartphone users always click ‘agree’ when presented with opt-in dialogues, there are likely thousands of people who are sharing their live location without their knowledge with all of their friends—a group which could potentially include hundreds. Furthermore, the opt-in dialogue is far from clear: many believed that Snapchap was asking to geotag their Snaps for the “Our Story” feature, as shown in the promotional video. Instead, however, Snapchat was asking for the ability to share their exact location with all of their friends.
"The Snapchat Map is creepy... there is no reason for my friends to know where I am at all times. And I had no idea that I had enabled it. I had inadvertently broadcasted my home address to all of my Snapchat friends. That freaks me out." Anonymous Reddit user via PM.
Here is an overview of Snapmap’s functions, according to a Snapchat representative who spoke to The Verge:
If you are choosing to share your location on the Map, your location is updated every time the Snapchat app is opened.
If a Snapchatter chooses to share their location with all of their friends on Snapchat, the app will remind them of that choice periodically to make sure they are still comfortable with this.
Only mutual friends can see each other on the Map.
Snapchat will delete precise location data after a short period of time. (This period of time was not specified.) Some more general location data may be retained a little longer (this time was also not specified), but the company says that is also subject to regular deletion.
If you tap on your friend, you will see when their location was updated (i.e., 1 hour ago, 2 hours ago). Their location reflects where they last opened Snapchat.
A friend’s location will remain on the Map for up to 8 hours if they do not open the app again, causing their location to update. If more than 8 hours has passed and a Snapchatter has not opened the app, their location will disappear from the Map entirely.
Even those who knowingly opted to share their live location on the Snapmap are vulnerable: not only is there no reason to share one’s live location with all of ones friends, it is likely that at some point users will go somewhere sensitive (such as a lawyer’s office, a party someone else wasn’t invited to, or the office of a doctor who specializes in an embarrassing field) and still be broadcasting their location on the Snapmap. People are invariably forgetful, and there is no reason that they will be especially vigilant when maintaining the visibility of their location on the Snapmap.
The Snapmap poses a tangible, direct threat to privacy. It facilitates stalking, and allows for an ex-lover or malicious stalker to potentially monitor the live location of their target. This is an immediate threat to both the physical security and social wellbeing of the target. And, even without stalkers or ex-lovers, the Snapmap reveals Snapchat users to their friends to a degree that is unprecedented. Previously, locations were shared in the form of one-time ‘updates’ through Snapchat geofilters and Facebook check-ins. Live location sharing every time someone opens Snapchat (which is, for most users, very common) is freakish.
The Snapmap poses a more long-term threat to privacy, too. The Snapmap normalizes location sharing: while refusing to share one’s location with one’s peers, the government, and corporations is a completely socially acceptable action at the moment, the Snapmap may make a considerable impact in the public’s outlook on location sharing. At the moment, there are few reasons to share one’s location with all of one’s friends. It’s simply considered unnecessary. The Snapmap, however, may condition society into believing that one’s location is the business of everyone else. And without a doubt, it is not.
Top photo: a photo of the Snapchat map in use. Via BusinessInsider.