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Federal Agencies To Offer Consumers A Primer On Location-Based Privacy

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For example, she's a regular user of the travel apps Tripit and TripCase. She's comfortable providing the services with her travel information because she finds them useful.

But there's a trade-off: it's not always clear what apps providers do with the exponentially-increasing amount of information they now have about their users.

So as the market for smart mobile devices takes off, issues such as privacy and location-based tracking are becoming topic of conversation among both consumers and legislators.

A new Nielsen survey has found that smartphones will overtake conventional mobile phones in the U.S. by 2011; as of April 2010, there were approximately 45 million smartphone users in the United States.

Yet according to a TRUSTe poll, only one in three smartphone users feels that they are in control of their personal information,.

Recent news reports of previously undisclosed location-based tracking by various smartphone makers has brought the issue front and center to both the public's attention as well as lawmakers', and has exacerbated the sense of unease.

To clarify the complex issues involved, both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission are convening a workshop on Tuesday that will help consumers to better understand the trade-offs they're making when they sign-up for location-based tracking services.

"Over the last few years, [location based services] have become an important part of the mobile market and a boon to the economy," noted the FCC in a public notice about the event. "Commercial location-based services include applications that help consumers find the lowest-priced product nearby or the nearest restaurant."

There are obviously many other great applications too, but "consumer apprehension about privacy can also act as a barrier to the adoption and utilization of broadband and mobile devices," it noted, hence a need for more information about how these apps work.

The FCC/FTC workshop will include representatives of mobile phone carriers, technology companies, consumer advocacy groups and several academics.

Among the topics discussed will be how location-based services work, the benefits and risks of location-based services, special concerns for parents, and industry best practices.

The Tuesday workshop is the latest in a series of forums that have been happening in DC over the past few years as lawmakers recognize that personal information has become the fuel that powers the social media economy.

On Monday morning, the Center for American Progress is holding its own workshop with FTC officials and representatives of the private sector discussing how a healthy balance can be struck between innovation in the world of location-based services and consumer privacy.

That lawmakers' concerns, along with the sporadic privacy panics, has inevitably led to calls for regulation.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Andrew Blumberg and Peter Eckersley believe that "while the benefits that [location-based services] offer are impressive, the risks of malign use of data from location-based services requires government intervention." In a recent white paper, the pair argued for government regulation to protect the privacy of smartphone users who opt to use location-based services.

Sens. Al Franken (D-MN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have proposed legislation that would require explicit approval from smartphone users to have their locations tracked.