Rumour Mill: Privacy legislation imminent for location services?

The European Union's top advisory body on online privacy will issue an opinion later this month that will say location data collected from mobile devices must be put in the same category as names, birthdays and other private information, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

The opinion will be published under the heading, "Article 29 Working Party," said the report, which cited unnamed EU officials. The Journal noted that the opinion will not binding, but it's likely to be adopted as a guiding principle by most national regulators.

The group "will say that geo-location data has to be considered as personal data," an EU official told the Journal. "The rules on personal data apply to them."

If and when the EU publishes the opinion, it will likely add to the huge debate on the rights and wrongs of location tracking. Currently, operators, device manufacturers and application developers all use location information to provide services and according to Kimon Zorbas, director of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, cited by the Journal,  collecting location data "is a legitimate device that helps businesses offer better services." He equated location information to an IP address on computers and said that understanding where people are coming from is crucially important in creating effective services.

The extent to which the rules on personal data would impact the various players is by no means clear. Apple claims it does not currently and has no plans to track users' locations, while Google claims anything it holds is anonymous and not linked to anyone's identity.

However, the same cannot be said for operators though, which can link location and identity. Indeed, they are required to do so, since regulation across much of Europe as well as the US mandates that operators have the ability to provide location information to emergency services. This regularly helps in criminal investigations and reaching people in need of medical help. Monetising that capability has long been an area of discussion for operators and Berg Insight predicts the market will beworth €420 million by 2015. Furthermore, exposing location APIs to developers has become an inherent part of operator app developer strategies.

For more:
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)

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