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A location-based service (LBS) is an information or entertainment service, accessible with a mobile device through the mobile network and utilizing the ability to make use of the geographical position of the mobile device.


Smartphones allow users access to location-based services that can provide them with navigation tools and information relevant to their surroundings based on increasingly precise information about the user's current location determined by Global Positioning System (GPS) and other methods. Location-based services have proved popular with users; the Pew Research Center reported that three-quarters of smartphone users were using such services as of February 2012.[1] In providing such services, smartphones and the companies that support their functions are able to collect and retain precise data about users' locations. Concerns have been raised about how mobile industry companies that provide or enable location-based services use and share consumers' location data, raising the potential that consumers' privacy could be violated if their location data are used in ways they did not intend or authorize.[2]

How do LBS determine someone's location?[]

  • Cell tower-based identification: Cell phones can determine their own location based on nearby cell-relay towers and provide this information to LBS running on the phone. Currently this information is accurate to within 100 meters — the length of a football field or city block — and is becoming more accurate as more cell towers are deployed.
  • Global Positioning system (GPS): GPS-enabled devices receive signals from a network of satellites and use these to triangulate the device’s location. GPS location information is accurate to within 20 meters — which can place the device at a specific location, like a church or doctor’s office.
  • Wifi Triangulation: Some devices and services determine location by surveying signals of nearby wireless networks, and comparing those signals to a list of known wireless access points. WiFi triangulation is accurate to within 200 meters.
  • Internet Protocol (IP) address approximation: Any website or Internet-based service can approximate a device’s location based on its IP address, which roughly maps to geographic location. The precision of IP approximation varies; generic addresses may only identify a given metro area, while certain IP addresses can identify a specific university campus or other location.
  • User-Provided Information: LBS can also simply ask the user to manually supply their current location. The accuracy and precision of this method is up to the service and user.[3]


No federal privacy laws, except COPPA, expressly address location data, location-based technology, and consumer privacy. Commentators have reported that the capability of mobile devices to provide consumer's location engenders privacy risks, particularly if companies use or share location data without consumers' knowledge.

The ECPA might not apply if location data were not deemed content and would not govern entities such as developers of location-based applications that are not covered by the ECPA. But the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could pursue enforcement action if a company's collection or use of the information violated COPPA.


  1. Kathryn Zickuhr, "Three-Quarters of Smartphone Owners Use Location-Based Services" (May 11, 2012) (full-text).
  2. Mobile Device Location Data: Additional Federal Actions Could Help Protect Consumer Privacy, at 1-2.
  3. ACLU of N. Cal., Location-Based Services: Time for a Privacy Check-In 4 (Nov. 2010) (full-text).


See also[]