Groupon wants your soul -- and also your location data

The massively popular group deals service will now track your location and send you offers via your smart phone. Does that make you nervous? It should.

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By now, we’re all familiar with the privacy trade-off inherent in using the Web, particularly with sites like Facebook or Twitter or Google. There is no free lunch; if you don’t pay for things they give you with money, you end up paying for them with your data.

In most cases, though, there are things you can do to obscure, withhold, or fictionalize your personal information. You don’t have to log into iGoogle to run a search; you don’t have to give Facebook your real name, no matter what Mark Zuckerberg tells you.

But  ‘social deals’ sites like Groupon are a different story. They collect even more information than a Facebook or a Google, and there’s no anonymity option; you want the deals, you have to fork over your actual identity, along with your credit card info.

[See also: Caught naked on Facebook – again! ]

One key difference is that, unlike most Web sites, Groupon offers items of tangible value – usually radical discounts on stuff you might be interesting in buying or trying. And all they want in return is your soul. What’s wrong with that?

OK, just kidding. Groupon doesn’t want your soul. They just want your soul’s address, its credit card and contact information, age and gender, birthdate, and social media interactions. They want information about your soul’s friends, especially if you or your soul have bought Groupon deals for them as gifts.

They also want to track and store the location of your soul’s mobile phone. That last bit is new, the result of changes to the Groupon privacy policy the company issued over the weekend.

Install the Groupon mobile app, and it may feed you deals based on where you happen to be standing at the moment. If, for example, you’re loitering outside a shiatsu parlor that works with Groupon, offers for half off on a foot massage may suddenly pop up on your phone.

Privacy geeks have been talking about this kind of thing for years. It’s now finally happening. The implications can get nasty quickly; as the laws now stand, any private entity that tracks your location can sell that data to anyone else, and must hand it over when ordered by a court.

Of course, you have to install the Groupon app and say Yes to have this tracking take effect. But you don’t have to be actively using Groupon or to accept a deal for them to collect your location information; Groupon has  access to it whenever they want. (They would need to, in order to send you deals.)  Per the new privacy policy:

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