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I can understand that an app needs explicit permissions to access it if the smartphone has a permission system (e.g. Android, Windows Phone). But how does location get so much intention than others (say, contacts), as I see Windows Phone (and iOS which does not even have a permission system) gives an extra notification for the first-time access to the location service.

What makes location so special?

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2 Answers 2

Well, many people consider Location data to be sensitive, as you'd imagine. The classic example is someone being stalked - they don't want their location out on the Internet anywhere.

I suppose what's special about location is that it usually happens automatically and so it's easy to accidentally leak information.

For example, I'm unlikely to accidentally put my home address on my Facebook wall by typing it in and pressing "post".

But suppose I use my phone to take a photo of my dog looking cute in the back yard and tweet it. If my twitter client geo-tags the picture automatically and silently, then my address is going to leak without me realising.

One other factor: there have been a couple of recent security breaches in relation to location on phones, particularly "Locationgate" on IOS and the whole CarrierIQ thing. You could argue that both were blown out of proportion by the media but they certainly got a lot of attention - questions in Congress, even - so vendors are taking particular care when location is involved.

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If so, only first-time notification seems not enough. –  user1221 May 11 '12 at 12:24
    
Yep, you need to be aware of what you accept, that's the game well played by the app developers :p –  Cyril N. May 11 '12 at 14:46
    
Well, as with so much in security, it's a trade off. –  Graham Hill May 11 '12 at 15:27
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Particularly with pop-ups asking "are you sure about this" - if they happen too often then people answer without looking and they become useless. –  Graham Hill May 11 '12 at 15:39

Great question. As far as I can tell, location is not special. There are other permissions that are more dangerous, or that generate a higher level of user concern.

So why do platforms ask specially about location? I am not sure, but I have some conjectures. First, location has some privacy implications, which many users might care about. Asking about location helps provide notice and consent, which are two core themes of protecting user privacy. Second, many apps use location information (many more than some of the other dangerous or concerning permissions we might consider).

That said, I still think your question is entirely fair. Mobile platforms are currently in a relatively young state. It is not clear whether the current approach of asking only about location is optimal, or whether this practice will survive. I would not be surprised if things look a bit different a decade from now, and if other resources start to be handled like location currently is.

For instance, consider the recent flap over Path, which was grabbing users' contact information and uploading it to Path's servers. It turned out that Path was not special; many other widely used iPhone apps were doing the same thing. Some users were upset to find that apps were grabbing all of their contact information, without asking them first. So, Apple responded by promising that future versions of iOS will prompt the user for permission before allowing the app to gain access to contact data -- just like happens with location. This suggests it is possible we might see some evolution of the platform where location is not so unique any longer, and where the platform prompts for permission for several other resources as well.

P.S. iOS currently prompts the user for two resources: access to location, and ability to create push notifications (which interrupt the user and can be annoying to some users). So there is already one other situation that generates a permission prompt beyond location access.

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