20 December 2012


The Australian Communications & Media Authority has released a 39 page report [PDF] titled Here, there and everywhere — Consumer behaviour and location services.

Overall it is a trite document and we might wonder why ACMA doesn't cooperate with the Office of the Information Commission in the production of more meaningful research and analysis.

ACMA indicates that
Location services are any service or application used on a communications device that identifies or makes use of that device’s geographic position. At their heart, location services do two things:
  • locate a device (the target) and record the time of the location determination 
  • return some information or initiate an activity whose nature and/or content depend at least in part on the location or series of location information. ...
Location services 'exhibit their potential in countless situations, which generally fall within the government, business and consumer domains'. The uses encompass emergency management and government applications, business solutions and consumer applications.
The report goes on to indicate that
ACMA’s consumer research identified that 37% of Australian adults had accessed a location service on a mobile phone in the six months prior to May 2012. Location services benefit consumers by providing products and services that are:
  • immediate - provided when it is needed 
  • contextual - provided where it is needed 
  • relevant - tailored to meet the needs of the individual.
The most commonly used location services were informational services. The consumer research identified that 35% of Australian adults had used a mobile phone to get directions, recommendations or other information related to their current location.
Common technologies involved in the provision of location services include:
Global Positioning System (GPS)
triangulation provided by mobile phone networks
location provided by consumer Wi-Fi devices.
All three methods are implemented in modern mobile devices to give the most accurate location possible in a timely manner. In addition, some services - such as social networking - use registration at a known location by the user.
Location information is collected when a location service is used. Other personal information may also be collected, either for the purposes of the service delivery or for the service provider’s use. The consumer research identified that consumers had a clear desire to be informed about how location services function and how to protect their personal information when using them. It also identified a deficit among participants of the skills and knowledge to manage personal and location information. This supports previous ACMA research that found that one in five adult Australians reported not being very confident, or not at all confident, in their ability to manage security and personal information online. Understanding the types of information that may be collected is important to growing consumer trust and engagement with location services.
Location service providers fall into at least one of three categories: network, device and third party. The majority of location services are free, or do not incur a separate charge to the consumer over and above the cost of the bandwidth used to provide the service. Revenue for location services is obtained through a variety of means, the majority of which capitalise on the other personal information that is collected from users when accessing the service; for example, targeted advertising.
For many users involved in the ACMA’s community research, the collection, storage and sharing of their personal information raised concerns.
Some people have concerns regarding data protection? Who'da thunkit!

ACMA concludes - more outstanding analysis - that
1. Greater use does not equate to a greater understanding
While consumers have been quick to embrace location services, greater frequency of use does not translate to a commensurate increase in awareness of—what information and personal data is collected and shared, how it is shared, where the data is sent, stored and compiled, and who controls the data. The majority of consumers understand the basics about the location information being collected, but there is a general lack of awareness about the sharing of this information and pathways by which personal data may be shared when using such services. As a result, many consumers lack the ability to choose appropriate protection options.
2. Risks are poorly understood and steps to protect may not be taken
Despite using location services on a frequent basis, many consumers had limited understanding of possible risks. More than two-thirds had concerns about the level of information they share when using location services. The sale and ownership of information and risk associated with disclosure were key concerns for the majority of users, with 71 per cent concerned with information being sold to a third party and 58 per cent concerned about the lack of details on where the data goes and who owns it.
While participants in the ACMA’s research reflected many different expressions of the types of risks involved in the use of location services, several common risks emerged:
  • marketing - a risk of receiving unsolicited marketing material 
  • personal - risk to self or property 
  • financial - risk of loss 
  • identity - risk of having identity stolen 
  • emotional - emotional or relationship harm 
  • disclosure - risk of data theft or sale.
When considering protective measures to manage these risks, knowledge of simple actions such as turning off location services when not in use was limited. Consumers did not regard information contained in terms and conditions either as an effective mechanism for informing themselves because they either ignored them or adopted a ‘tick and flick’ approach in their haste to access the service or application. This is highlighting the need for further work, particularly focused on the design of mechanisms that would allow consumers to become better informed about the terms and operation of their service.
3. Consumers want information to help them protect personal data
Most consumers (88%) felt there was a need for information to assist them in protecting their personal information when accessing location services. More than two-thirds of users (67%) felt they should be informed if a location service was collecting information about them, including location information, phone number, personal details or other personal information.
Generally, consumers expected information and advice about how to protect personal information. The majority of users (51%) regarded their service provider as being responsible for providing this information. When it came to protecting personal information, consumers regarded this as a matter of shared responsibility between the individual, the service or application provider and the government. Insights from other international regulatory approaches to location services has identified a common suite of consumer and citizen concerns with a particular focus on personal data protection, security and privacy. In addressing these concerns, other jurisdictions have adopted a range of approaches that can be characterised by:
  • service specific legislative responses
  • layered regulatory models 
  • multi-faceted sectoral approaches.
 ACMA concludes that
Location services are typical of the fast-moving technological changes that have been affecting the communications industry globally. The impact of these services on current legislative frameworks has been universally challenging regardless of the type of framework in place. Globally, the issues of consent, privacy and digital information management that location services typify are raising concerns for governments, industry and consumers. Approaches to addressing these concerns are still being tested in a variety of regulatory regimes.
For the ACMA, the international experience of regulating location services demonstrates that the issues its community research identified for Australian users correlate with those in the wider digital environment.