Loopt has taken mobile mapping to a new level. The startup’s application not only allows users to see where their friends are on a map, but also lets them text each other within the app and share photos.
Since Loopt’s beginnings, the company has been proactive in setting high standards for user privacy. For instance, Loopt is a closed network and therefore only allows users to share their locations with specified friends. It also has reached out to multiple privacy groups for their guidance on navigating the privacy terrain.
Brian Knapp, vice president of corporate affairs for Loopt, spoke with the E-Commerce Times about the company’s users, security and privacy safeguards, data retention and wireless carrier relationships.
E-Commerce Times: What are the demographics of Loopt users?
[It is] students at big colleges and universities and young urban professionals who are sort of all about the happy hour, the fun thing to do on the weekend. Those are the kind of folks we’re targeting.
ECT: What user data does Loopt retain?
We have the mobile phone number; user name that’s created by the user; birth date because we have a minimum age of 14; password for their account; the last location fix that we get within a 24-hour period — and that’s used to display your location to your confirmed friends on the Loopt service; and finally, any content you’ve generated, user-generated content similar to what you’d see on Facebook, for example, where I might put in my interests, what I like to do, and I might mark events and places.
We have a journal where you could geoblog and create geoblog entries. [You could say,] “Hey, I’m at this great museum,” and I can tag it with a location. That’s what we maintain to run the service.
ECT: How long do you retain that data?
We’re not a search engine or a search business — we’re sort of passively collecting data. It’s pretty binary for us. We don’t retain location information as a matter of course. We only maintain the last location fix, and the reason [why we haven’t retained location information] is that we haven’t yet come across a business justification that we felt was compelling enough to keep a location history on all our users all the time as a matter of course. …
The only exception to that [is] obviously when users choose to geotag their content, places and events. We’ll keep that as well as all of the other profile information that they keep on their profile for the term of their account.
ECT: How else do you use the data, and do you share user data with other companies?
No, we don’t share the data with any other companies, and our wireless carrier partners obviously [are] privy to much of the same information themselves. They already have it, so it’s not as if we need to necessarily transmit it to them. There are some interactions between our system and the wireless carrier network where information is exchanged, and that’s pretty clear to the user in the registration process. …
ECT: Is there a difference between how teenagers use Loopt as opposed to twenty- and thirtysomethings?
Frankly, the younger set is a bit more savvy about new technologies, and I think if you just talk anecdotally to people in the wireless industry, [you’ll hear that] the younger users are doing an awful lot of text messaging, they’re very used to sharing information with their peers, and they really want to know where their friends are and what they’re up to almost on a constant basis, so they don’t think anything of sending a few hundred text messages per month.
If anything, you’d see a little bit more frequent usage of Loopt by that set of people who might just even throughout a day want to know where people are, what they’re doing, what they’re up to, and are sending them messages back and forth, commenting on their journals. It’s just sort of more activity in general from that set of users.
ECT: Do you have a different approach to how you handle the data of minors?
We have a age-neutral screening mechanism within our mobile and Web registration process to help screen out [minors], and that’s kind of a best practice that was developed out of FTC’s (Federal Trade Commission) COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) law. We’ve implemented that age-neutral screening mechanism in order to better screen out users that are under the age of 14, in our case.
[Regarding Loopt’s overall privacy regime,] it’s obviously 100 percent opt-in — the service — so we’re not going to start sourcing your location or allowing you to share it until you’ve gone through our registration process [and notice and consent]. … Our entire system is compliant with the best practices recently published by the CTIA, and frankly the privacy principles that the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) put out in 1980, which I think are the key privacy principles that businesses need to start with when they’re developing a privacy regime.
We have a strong notice and consent regime up front, and then we have a robust reminder program after you’ve initially signed up. In the first couple of weeks, we send you several SMS (short message service) messages to remind you that Loopt’s on your phone and that you’re sharing your location. It is a closed network at this point, and so you can only make friend connections with people whose mobile phone numbers you have. It’s not an open social network where you can browse around and try to make friend connections with people you don’t really know. It’s really for your real-world friends and family. Once you confirm a friendship connection, which is obviously totally voluntary, you can terminate it at any time.
We try to do privacy innovation here, in terms of building privacy considerations and user experience with those privacy considerations in the product development life cycle early and often — so it’s not an afterthought. It actually gets built into the product design process. One of the things we came up with, users wanted a very easy way to sort of hide from all their friends. We added a top-level menu button where with one click, I can just hide from all of my friends instantly. I can also hide on a friend-by-friend basis, so if I don’t mind if Shari knows where I am, but I want to hide from Sam, I can hide from Sam anytime I want and leave him blocked. I can also just terminate a friendship connection very easily. …
ECT: Have you had to reassure the parents of young Loopt users that your security and privacy provisions are strong enough?
We have. … Kids are very deft at using new technologies like this, a lot of them have sort of been trained on Facebook and MySpace, if you will, about how to use privacy settings. Most of them are a lot more responsible than people would lead you to believe in terms of the kind of information that they share and knowing to be responsible about using technologies like this.
We have a pretty good story in terms of the things that I just mentioned — the controls that are available and the fact that it is a closed network, etc. We’re usually able to explain that and talk parents through it, and there’s not a high level of concern. I know there’s a lot of talk about minors out there, but the facts often don’t bear out what people are worried about. …
The key issue is that many people are reacting to online safety without really fully understanding it. And therefore, they’re trying to solve the wrong problems that don’t exist and at the same time leaving the real problems — detracting from the focus on them. …
ECT: Have any privacy watchdogs expressed concerns about services like Loopt? How do you respond to them?
Basically, since the beginning of Loopt, we believed it was important to reach out to those groups in addition to members of Congress and folks like the FTC and FCC (Federal Communications Commission), and even the White House.
So, in the last couple of years — in particular, over the last year — we’ve built working relationships with several organizations. We work with the Ponemon Institute, the Center for Democracy & Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation; we’ve met several times with the National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Progress & Freedom Foundation; we’re board members for the Family Online Safety Institute; and we participated in the Cyber Safe California Summit in December, which is run by California’s office of privacy.
We’re not just doing that to sort of stay out of trouble, if you will, or avoid criticism. We’re doing that because we need their help. We need to take a cooperative approach to driving privacy innovation. We want to take it up a level, we want to take it beyond the OECD’s 1980 privacy principles and find out what’s the next level of privacy innovation out there. How do we be proactive about tackling privacy in this new age, particularly in the wireless space with location? And we know enough to know that we don’t know everything, and we can’t do it ourselves.
You might think these privacy organizations would be difficult to talk to, or challenging, or not think much of Loopt — and it’s quite the contrary. They’re pro-business, they’re pro-innovation, they really appreciate it if you’re proactive and you come to them before you release things, you talk through issues with them, and you just keep them informed. And we’ve found them to be absolutely incredible working partners for us in terms of helping us develop our privacy approach.
ECT: Are there any businesses using Loopt?
Not that we’re aware of. We’re really a consumer application. One thing that we’ve had done is worked with organizations where it’s not really for commercial purposes. For example, our city forest is a nonprofit group. … When they’re in the woods, they might need to find each other or they might need to all find out where the meeting spot is to see the special tree or whatever. They’ve been using Loopt in the field, and it’s a relatively cost-effective way for them to be organized.
One thing we’ve often talked about here and we wouldn’t be surprised if it starts happening is on political campaigns, if volunteers on the ground wanted to use something like Loopt to get together and find each other. We’ve had a number of bloggers at South by Southwest using a combination of Loopt on their computer and handset and our Facebook application to geoblog about different bands. …
ECT: How do you differentiate Loopt from competitors?
Loopt has differentiated itself in a couple of ways. First of all, we are a carrier-centric model, and we really value those wireless carrier relationships, and they are absolutely key to our strategy.
We started off with Boost Mobile. We launched on that carrier, and they’ve been incredibly supportive. They’re actually a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint Nextel. So, after they saw the success of the Boost launch, Sprint Nextel decided that it was appropriate to offer us on their network. We just recently announced that we are going to be launching on the Verizon Wireless network, and we also have closed deals with a couple of other carriers and we’re in talks with others.
Another way [Loopt is different] is that we do automatically update location on your phone. Friend-finder applications that came before Loopt didn’t automatically update and, frankly, they weren’t compelling. It wasn’t much better or different than just opening up your phone and sending a text message because you had to open up the application every time you wanted to update your location. So, imagine if you could only see your friends’ MySpace profiles when they were logged into MySpace. It’s the wrong paradigm.
ECT: How have your deals with major carriers affected your approach to data management and privacy?
Wireless carriers are, in my experience, about as good as it gets with regard to privacy and data security — they’re absolutely top-notch. They have dozens of people that work on these issues, and they think long and hard about them. So, they absolutely have made us better, and I can only hope that maybe we’ve given some back in terms of data security and privacy. …
That’s been a working relationship that continues almost on a day-to-day basis of improving and driving cutting-edge privacy and security considerations. In a lot of our outreach work, in our policy work, we’ve done that alongside our carrier partners as well. …
ECT: Can you tell us about what’s in the Loopt pipeline for the next few months? Any big announcements in the offing?
As I mentioned, we just started publicizing our Facebook application, so that’s something that we’re really excited about that we hope broadens the Loopt audience a bit. We are about to launch a BlackBerry version of Loopt, which we think is going to be absolutely huge for our demographic and the user experience on the BlackBerry is really, really exciting. …
And then obviously, we don’t have any specific announcements there, but we’re very excited about the iPhone and potentially having a version for the iPhone down the road. And then you can definitely expect more carriers in the pipeline over the next few months.