Smartphone location data: privacy vs. faster emergency service

Recently, my health insurance company informed me that they launched a new mobile app to make it easier for me to access my health insurance information whenever and wherever I might need it. Available as a free download for Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone, the app is designed to allow members to securely view their benefits, locate a doctor and carry an electronic version of their member ID card.

According to the marketing material, they are the first health plan in my area to offer a mobile app so that its members can leverage the latest technologies in order to make "informed health care decisions." They might be the first healthcare provider in my region to tap into the explosion of smartphone use among consumers, but they certainly aren't the first in the country as it seems to be a growing trend.

According to the Nielsen Company, as of June 2012, smartphones accounted for more than half of all mobile phones in the U.S., up from less than one-quarter in early 2010. By 2015, it is estimated that 500 million smartphone users will have medical apps on their devices. No wonder mobile health app developers are chomping at the bit to bring their products to market.

Mobile devices have great potential to streamline medical care, including their ability to transmit the location of the user. However, that's where caution gets the better of me and I see a red flag regarding the whole issue of mobile device location data.

As we all know by now, mobile industry companies collect location data and use or share that data to provide users with location-based services, as well as to increase their revenue through targeted advertising and other marketing activities. While it's true that mobile device data provides consumers with faster response from emergency services through 9-1-1 calls that transmit the location of the caller, the collection and sharing of location data also poses privacy risks.

Smartphones and the companies that support their functions are able to collect and retain precise data about users' locations. Concerns have been rightfully raised by privacy advocates about how mobile industry companies that provide or enable location-based services use and share consumers' location data. The fear is the potential that consumers' privacy could be violated if their location data are used in ways they did not intend or authorize, such as disclosing data to unknown third parties for unspecified uses, consumer tracking, identity theft, threats to personal safety, and surveillance.

Call me paranoid but I just don't trust mobile industry companies to do the right thing as it relates to consumers' location data. The temptation is too great for these companies to resist exploiting their access to this data. Like most things in modern life, particularly those related to technology, what it comes down to is a trade-off. In this case, a trade-off between giving up one's right to privacy and having one's location known in the case of a medical emergency. Welcome to our brave new world. - Greg @fiercehealthIT