Does the era of the always-on location-aware device demand a new genre of privacy settings? More robust geo-privacy settings, perhaps?
That’s the motivation behind Flickr geofences, a newly added precautionary and practical feature that allows users to map out zones and set distinct location sharing settings for those areas.
Here’s why it matters: Fluffy the cat is being extra cute today. You snap a photo of Fluffy with your smartphone and share it on the web. The photo of Fluffy, depending on your default settings, could carry with it metadata that exposes your home address. Now you have a potential privacy kerfuffle on your hands.
Should you opt to set up a geofence on Flickr with a 250-meter radius surrounding your home, however, you could specify that only a certain group of people — family members, for instance — would be able to see the whereabouts of those cute cat photos you post today, tomorrow or at any other time in the future (and even the ones you posted in the past).
But, as Flickr frontend engineer Trevor Hartsell explains in an interview, geofences “are an entirely new concept for most Flickr users,” as most don’t realize that “where a photo is taken could have a secondary effect.”
In 2010, Hartsell tapped the Flickr API to build an application for personal use. An avid photo geotagger — Flickr has supported geotagging for five years — Hartsell was still cautionary about sharing the location data of photos at more personal places. “I didn’t want everyone to know where my photos were taken,” he says.
And so the Geo Privacy Helper was born. The simple tool helped ensure that photos he took at his house would only show up on a map for friends and family members. The tool was made available to other users in Flickr’s App Garden, but was not officially offered or supported by Flickr.
That changed following an office reconstruction project earlier this year that forced Flickr staff members to work from home for a day. Hartsell and a few other engineers decided to take the day to hack together a new feature. They brainstormed over breakfast and decided to rework Hartsell’s tool into a geofences feature for all Flickr users.
“Flickr pioneered geo … and geo-privacy had recently become a topic of interest internally,” Hartsell says. “We had a working prototype at the end of the day. We took it back to the office on Monday, showed it around and everyone was really excited about it.”
The next challenge, he says, was figuring out how to polish it and make it an intuitive tool that anyone could open up and start using right away. “Geofences is a feature that is both powerful and tricky; it needed to be done just so.”
The project ended up taking a couple of months from start to finish. In development, several edge case scenarios surfaced that made implementation even hairier than planned. One of the questions that arose: “What happens if you have your default geo-privacy set to one thing and a geofence set to something less restrictive?”
Ultimately, Flickr decided to err on the side of the caution so that in overlapping scenarios, the most restrictive privacy setting would always win out.
The end game for Flickr is less about encouraging users to be more private, and instead more about empowering them to show the location of their photos on their own terms. “Our goal is to help people make locations visible to the people they want them to be visible to,” Hartsell says.
Flickr, as the first large online photo site to employ geofences for location privacy, is merely adapting to the way of the world, as Hartsell sees it. “Location services have been niche for power users,” he says, “but we’ve gotten to the point where location services are now the standard.”
Hartsell even says that he hopes Flickr’s geo-privacy features will be replicated by other photo sharing services, including Facebook.
With smartphones now in the hands of 40% of mobile consumers over the age of 18 in the U.S., according to new Nielsen data, the volume of photos posted to the web with location data attached makes a strong case for exactly that.