A man using a smartphone
A man using a smartphone Jonathan Cohen, Binghamton University

Computer engineers from Binghamton University in the US have developed a new app that encrypts your location when you search for things online so that third party services can't detect where you are, as well as giving the user the option to give a friend their location.

The app uses public key encryption (PGP) to encrypt a user's location, so when the user searches for something on Google or uses any other kind of app that includes location services such as Facebook or Foursquare, an encrypted form is sent to the service provider, so they can see the user's request, but they cannot see the user's location.

"This research is based on testing the distance between two users with social relationships so that we guarantee the service provider will not know the exact location of these two parties," Linke Guo, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Binghamton University, who led the research team, told IBTimes UK.

"The service provider cannot decrypt the location. We allow them to do operations on the cipher text [but] only my friends can decrypt it. So I am manipulating something that is encrypted. This is not a new technique, but it's new that we're using it in location-based services."

Solution concept won an award from the IEEE

The research paper based on the app, entitled "Privacy-preserving Verifiable Proximity Test for Location-based Services" also recently beat over 3,000 other submissions to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) to win the Best Paper Award at the IEEE Globecom Conference, Symposium on Communication & Information System Security that was held in San Diego on 7 December 2015.

The team have been developing the prototype app since January 2015 to work on Android, and the idea is that users will download the app for free onto their smartphones, and the user would add their friends to the contacts list in the app. The app contains a map and the user can instantly see the location of friends who also have the app on their phone, but location information stays within the app.

Unfortunately, even if the app is on your phone, this cannot stop Facebook from tracking your location if you are using the Facebook app, so the researchers hope that service providers can be persuaded to include this privacy protection tool in their apps.

Google and Facebook will need to care more about your privacy

"Five years ago nobody cared about privacy, but right now, people care about their privacy, and people read privacy agreements before they download apps, so we believe that this could be very important. Location-based service providers could enable this functionality within their apps and give users the option to hide their location," explained Guo.

"I think that in five years' time, providers like Google and Facebook will have to compromise on using users' locations for business profit, otherwise they stand to lose a lot of business as users are already leaving Facebook and Twitter due to privacy leakage. If they do not want to lose business, they will take action. "

The researchers hope to be able to release the app for Android devices on Google Play for free, but they will require additional funding and are seeking commercial partners to join the project.