What Is It About Location?

76 Pages Posted: 6 May 2019 Last revised: 3 Aug 2020

See all articles by Kirsten Martin

Kirsten Martin

University of Notre Dame

Helen Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech NYC; Cornell Tech

Date Written: November 21, 2019


This paper reports on a set of empirical studies that reveal how people think about location data, how these conceptions relate to expectations of privacy, and, consequently, what this might mean for law, regulation, and technology design. Despite the great debates, published commentary, court action, regulatory activity, and scholarly literature, not enough is known about how people understand location data, and what specifically about location affects people’s judgments about others’ access to their whereabouts. Further, despite efforts to stem location tracking, it remains rampant. Perhaps for the very reasons that people find it abhorrent, the trackers eagerly clutch this revealing window in our lives. Stern rules aimed at curtailing location tracking are a poor match for the ingenuity of seekers of this information who, among other tactics, exploit enormous ambiguity in how location is interpreted and operationalized, to make end runs around these rules.

This conceptual ambiguity about location poses challenges even to good faith efforts to regulate location tracking and to represent and enforce it in systems in concert with the ways people conceive, interpret, and value it. In other words, technical and regulatory efforts to protect location privacy may stumble because of a failure to map the meaning that people assign to location with its representations in technical systems.

Our studies offer insights into how people think about location data and the factors affecting how we evaluate common location-tracking practices. In so doing these studies may serve the needs of courts, regulators, and systems designers seeking to address diverse challenges without compromising the normative standing of privacy interests in location data. After a series of pilot studies used to test the design of the study, we deployed Knowledge Networks to achieve a nationally representative sample of 1,500 respondents. Using a factorial vignette survey, we asked respondents to rate the appropriateness (a range of ‘Definitely Not OK’ to ‘Definitely OK’) of a series of scenarios, in which contextual elements were systematically varied; these elements included who gathered the location data, how the data was gathered, how long it was stored, and what information was inferred about the subject from the location data. Respondents were placed in one of three conditions determined by vignettes in one of three categories: (1) a baseline category in which they were asked about the collection of location data by different actors, (2) #1 with duration of surveillance added, (3) #2 with inference about the individual included.

Our results immediately debunk the idea that people have no expectations of privacy in public. Rather, the findings extend work revealing legitimate privacy interests in erstwhile public locations. The findings reinforce general objections to common practices involving amassing of location data by government and commercial entities, showing that these map onto expressed privacy expectations in systematic and specific ways.

Further, the studies reveal that the ways we ask about location in surveys and regulate location in rules makes a difference to how people react. Adding details, such as the duration of collection, the place, and the inferences drawn about the individual decreases the degree to which the vignette are ‘ok.’ The results here show that drawing inferences about an individual's location or identifying the ‘place’ where they are significantly affects how appropriate people judge respective practices to be. This means that tracking an individual's place – home, work, shopping – is seen to violate privacy expectations, even without directly collecting GPS data, that is, standard markers representing location in technical systems.

Although our findings, by themselves, do not support specific lines of legal regulation they leave little doubt of a damaging rift between how these beneficiaries of location surveillance communicate their practices and how we, its subjects, understand it. Only when this rift is repaired will it be possible adequately to regulate location surveillance – through policy, law, and technology – to meet privacy expectations and promote privacy’s societal value.

Suggested Citation

Martin, Kirsten and Nissenbaum, Helen F., What Is It About Location? (November 21, 2019). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1, 2020, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3360409 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3360409

Kirsten Martin (Contact Author)

University of Notre Dame ( email )

364 Mendoza
South Bend, IN 46530
United States

Helen F. Nissenbaum

Cornell Tech NYC ( email )

2 W Loop Rd
New York, NY 10044
United States

Cornell Tech ( email )

2 W Loop Rd
New York, NY 10044
United States

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