Publication Details

This article will be published as: Perusco, L & Michael, K, The Importance of Scenarios in Evaluating the Socio-ethical Implications of Location-based Services, IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, 2007 (in press). The journal homepage is located here.


Location-based services (LBS) are those applications that utilize the position of an end-user, animal or thing based on a given device (handheld, wearable, interwoven into fabric or implanted), executed for a particular purpose. LBS applications range from those that are mission-critical to those that are used for convenience, from those that are mandatory to those that are voluntary, from those that are targeted at the mass market to those that cater for the needs of a niche market. Location services can be implemented using a variety of access mediums including global positioning systems and radio-frequency identification, rendering approximate or precise position details. The introduction of location-based services, which are growing in sophistication and complexity, has brought with it a great deal of uncertainty. Unaddressed topics include: who is accountable for the accuracy and availability of location information, prioritization for location frequency reporting, the user’s freedom to opt-in and opt-out of services, caregiver and guardian rights and responsibilities, the transparency of transactions, the duration of location information storage. Some of these controversies are the focus of court cases across the United States, usually between service providers and disgruntled end-users or law enforcement agencies and suspected criminals. While we can wait for the courts to set precedence and then take legislative action to learn about how we should act and what we should accept as morally right or wrong, this is only a small part in considering the emerging ethics of an innovation such as location-based services. Laws, similar to global technical standards take a long time to enact. A more holistic approach is required to analyze technology and social implications. This paper uses scenarios in the form of short stories to summarize and draw out, the likely issues that will arise from widespread adoption of LBS. It is a plausible future scenario, grounded in the realism of today’s technological capabilities.