According to Internet comic Andy Borowitz, Osama bin Laden's last words were "I knew I shouldn't have signed up for Foursquare."
Foursquare, for the uninitiated, is a web application with which users check in through their mobile telephone when arriving at various locations, in order to qualify for discounts, meet up with friends, or get bragging rights as the "mayor" of a particular location.
Foursquare can be fun, with some aspects of a game and some aspects of social networking. But for some people, location privacy is becoming a serious topic of discussion.
Apple Inc. had to respond last week to accusations that it was infringing on the privacy of iPhone users through location-aware software.
"The iPhone is not logging your location," stated the company in a Q&A posting on its website, apple.com. "Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested."
Apple claims it will revise its software to reduce the size of the data file it's saving on iPhones and to erase it when the user turns off location-based services.
Meanwhile, an internal memo from Google which was brought to light as part of a court case indicates that Google considers location-based services important to its future strategy.
"I cannot stress enough how important Google's Wi-Fi location database is to our Android and mobile-product strategy," wrote Google product manager Steve Lee in an internal memo quoted by the website Fierce Mobile Content.
The company responded by saying that all of its location services are opt-in, meaning that the customer must agree to them in advance.
According to a Dow Jones News Service story, U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has asked Apple and Google representatives to attend a hearing on privacy next month.
For many people, the fact that their phones carry Global Positioning System (GPS) chips and software is a good thing. Users can use Google Maps or some other application on their phone to get driving directions or find their way around a strange city. They can use Foursquare to meet up with friends or can tag their photos and videos with a particular location.
According to some observers, some companies want to use location-based technologies to target advertising messages -- for example, when you're in the neighborhood of store X or restaurant Y, you might get a text telling you about daily specials or a coupon.
Location-based services are fine, as long as participants agree to them. But there are plenty of questions: what's being done, are users made aware of it, and are they given an appropriate chance to opt out (or not to opt in in the first place)?
Part of the problem is that computer users have so many different user agreements presented to them that most of us click on "agree" without necessarily knowing what it is that we're agreeing to.
The TV cartoon "South Park" made a funny -- if somewhat vulgar -- reference to the complexity of the issue last week. One of the characters on the show learned that the user agreement for Apple software -- to which he'd routinely agreed without reading it -- gave Apple the right to conduct a somewhat gruesome medical experiment on him. (The experiment, I discovered after a little checking online, was itself a parody of a particularly bizarre and perverse horror movie which came out a couple of years ago.)
Companies like Apple, Google and Facebook need to give us the information we need to make informed decisions about privacy. But we, as users, also need to take responsibility for seeking out such information and knowing the terms before we click the "agree" button.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.