Face2face brings privacy to location by approximating friends' whereabouts

Location-based services that are taking advantage of a smartphone’s GPS and wi-fi triangulation capabilities are continuously struggling to get even more accurate location data to pinpoint phones and, by extension, their users. While accuracy is a boon for many, there are companies taking a different approach to location: Close enough is good enough.

With check-in services like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt and Brightkite, people are becoming accustomed to sharing their location for something in return – a gaming experience or a special deal, for instance. But some users prefer a bit of privacy, and those are the users Proximate Global is targeting with its new face2face service, which only approximates location rather than hitting it with pinpoint accuracy.

The service acts as an aggregate for the different social networks. As it works now, face2face links users’ Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and LinkedIn accounts to let them know if their friends on any of these networks happen to be somewhere in their physical proximity. It’s not a question of technical prowess (Proximate says it can offer as accurate information as anyone) but of personal space.

“The idea is to show friends within a walking distance,” explained Proximate Global CEO Hameed Khan (pictured), which in most cases means a radius of 500 yards but could be less in densely populated areas like New York City, or more in less-densely populated areas. “We want users of these virtual networks to have the same serendipitous moments they have in the real world, like bumping into somebody by chance.” When a user is alerted of a nearby friend, they can then engage in a chat or send a message suggesting a meeting.

Giving up location is entirely opt-in when using face2face. Users can have their approximate location visible to nobody, their friends only, or their friends and friends-of-friends. As Khan sees it, the company is all about creating a product that complements human behavior. “In the real world, most introductions are made through trusted connections, by friends-of-friends or by colleagues. That is what we are enabling with face2face, too,” said Khan.

New York City-based Proximate is aiming face2face at smartphone users. It’s rolling out versions of the app for the iPhone, Blackberry and Android platforms simultaneously. A company employing 46 people (consisting mostly of software engineers), Proximate is hoping to bring location-based services into the mainstream, something that’s made easier by the fact that they facilitate the existing social networks people already have instead of having users build new, face2face-specific networks. The company has picked up over a million dollars in funding from its management team and some angel investors, and is looking for additional funding.

“Location-based services are hot now, but still mostly used by early-adopters. People are worried that to use location-based services, you have to compromise privacy, but that’s not true. Users need to have full control of their location and how they share it,” Khan said.

This privacy-focused approach is not unique. A new company called PlaceBook firmly believes in it, too. In the wake of Facebook and Google’s privacy blunders, it seems that many new entrants to the location-based services market are taking privacy concerns very seriously. We’ll see how well that translates into mainstream adoption of these services.

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