Last week I received an email from a colleague with the subject line "Big Brother has arrived" and a link to a story that originated on the Guardian. The report warned of a software program developed by U.S. defense contractor Raytheon. Dubbed "Google for Spies," the company's RIOT software can pull together data shared across social media networks, including location information.
The result? A detailed picture of a person's life and a tool to track individuals and predict their future behavior. While all this sounds pretty scary, the amount of data such programs could collect is in the control of people using social networks, not the government. Further, there's really nothing new about this type of software.
RIOT searches an individual's Foursquare check-ins and Facebook and Twitter postings that contain geolocation data -- information that the user has already made public. People search services such as Spokeo and Pipl, which mine public records as well as social networks, are even more intrusive than RIOT.
The surge in location-based apps has increased concerns about privacy because these apps offer real-time data to anyone who happens to monitor a person's check-ins.
Foursquare is not the only location-based service people use to broadcast their locations to friends in their networks. And other apps could expand the audience for such information. For example, Loci.st, a new app for iPhone and Android from OneHackMind, could provide location data to a much wider pool of listeners than Foursquare.
Loci.st allows users to broadcast announcements to any other users within a specified radius, from one block to 10 miles. The idea is to alert people to events and other happenings occurring nearby, such as a band performance.
For privacy, users can blast anonymously, and these messages are set by default to disappear after 30 minutes. However, unlike Foursquare, messages go out to anyone on the network within range. (While this could be fun for adults out on the town, this is a particularly risky app for kids.)
The key to preventing the government, or anyone else, from tracking you is to adjust your privacy settings on your computer and your mobile devices. In general, stay away from location apps, turn off location on other social apps such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and limit the visibility of your social media posts to those you trust.
Start with your mobile device. Unless you're lost, you really don't need your device's location services to be on. In Android, open the Settings app, then scroll down to Location Services. You'll be given the option of separately turning off Google's location services (which finds you via Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular towers) and GPS satellite data, as well as whether Google can use your location in its own search results (such as using smartphone motion to estimate traffic flow). To turn off location settings in Android's Camera app, open the app and click on the menu, where there's a toggle switch for "Store location."
For iPhone and iPad users, open Settings and select Privacy. At the top of the list, you'll see Location Services and whether yours are on or off. You can see a listing of each app that uses your phone's GPS data as well. You may choose to turn off location for certain apps and your phone's camera or turn off all location by moving the top master toggle to Off.
If you use Facebook on your phone or tablet, review your privacy settings by tapping on the three bars in the upper left corner of the homescreen. You'll find Privacy Settings way down at the bottom. While you can choose who will see each post as you type a new one, you can make a global change here. For the most privacy, select Custom rather than Public or Friends, which will open a new window and offer you the option of making mobile posts visible to only you.
Unfortunately, Facebook's mobile Custom option is not the same as it is on its desktop version, where Custom allows you to select individuals who can see posts. Remember, you can always go back and share mobile posts to a few friends once you're in front of your computer.
Finally, the most important privacy step is to remember to log off, whether you're on your computer or a mobile device.
Ogden-based TopTenREVIEWS.com guides consumers by comparing products in the world of technology, including electronics, software and Web services. Have a question for TopTenREVIEWS? Email Leslie Meredith at firstname.lastname@example.org.