Apps, please be kinder to users with defaults, especially location

Sound: easy to realize it's on and easy to turn off

Sound: easy to realize it’s on and easy to turn off

Every few months, either as a testament to the current planned obsolescence of smartphones or my clumsiness, I need to start up a new Android phone from a full reset. Recently I had to do this twice: once for a temporary replacement phone and then again for a fixed phone. After reinstalling my apps I noticed just how many apps make way too much noise, with all of them turned on by default. Touch tones, update tones, typing tones, refresh tones and so on. Each app requires the user to turn off noise in the app’s own settings, there is no central location for turning off noise. (There is general silence setting but I do need to hear incoming calls, it is a phone after all!)

My complaint about sounds turned on by default is a minor gripe, one easily addressed. I also understand that apps need to draw a bit of attention to themselves and for whatever reason, their designers felt that different sounds would do the job. Regardless, as a user, this is easy to fix as the sounds are A, noticeable and discernable, B, easy to turn off and C, users know for sure when sounds are on or off.

This is not the case with location grabbing, where user’s locations are attached various aspects of their app use: from status updates to photo location tags to “checking in.” Turned on by default, it isn’t always something the user is aware of because it is not always immediately visible to the user that their location is attached their activities. It also seems that some apps are making it harder for users to avoid being geo-located, even if their geo-locating tracking setting is turned off.

A few recent features that stretch the boundaries of acceptable location tracking are:

  1. Last week Facebook released a Safety Check feature. Based on a user’s location, Facebook will trigger a notification if there is a major safety event, such as an earthquake or flood, in the area. Users can quickly indicate if they are safe and Facebook will translate that verification into a status update. Here’s the problem, though: “ Facebook determines location from cities listed in profiles, last location from the Nearby Friends feature, or the city you’re connecting and using the internet from.” It doesn’t seem to respect user’s own location settings for this, and under the mantle of “safety” Facebook is telling us it knows where users are even if users don’t choose to share that information.
  2. Apple included a default setting to collect location in its recent Yosemite Mac update and iOS 8 updates. It also made these settings difficult to find and in multiple locations. “As Safari has, perplexingly, a separate set of preferences for its own Spotlight tool, users will also have to change the settings for the browser if they don’t want Apple to grab their data.” I doubt that users would have become aware of this grab without experts explaining the default settings.
  3. Whisper, an app touting anonymity, may (or may not, this story is still playing out) tracking location of users that have opted out of those settings.
  4. Last week I wrote how Google picked up on my location with its Landmark Recognition capabilities, making Google able to identify my location even if I have all location settings turned off.

It’s clear that location is valuable to advertisers. Both Facebook and Google have recently announced hyper-local advertising functionality based on location, and advertising is the juice that enables these companies to offer their products for free. Yet I wish that they’d both ask permission before collecting that information and respect that decision going forward. Is that too naive?



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