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Life 360: Creepy or Cautious?

Written by: Alexander Zhang

Of the 10 apps that won the $275,000 grand prize for Google’s 2008 Android Development Challenge—among which include a healthy collection of cab-calling apps, photo-editors, and shopping companions—Life360, a simple location-tracker, is by far the most successful in 2020. With over 25 million active users and a monthly revenue of over $62 million, Life360 stands as a dominant provider of social networking services. While Life360 promises to perform a variety of tasks (such as driving assessment, emergency contact, and messaging), its main function is simple: to keep track of family members’ realtime locations via GPS. To some, this availability of information is an absolute must for safety. To others, it’s a blatant violation of privacy. Since its inception, Life360 has garnered as much skepticism as it has praise, so it’s worthwhile to ask the question: is Lif360 creepy or cautious? 

To preface, I come from a family that uses Life360 on a daily basis. And, in my experience, it’s quite useful. If I’m waiting for my parents to pick me up, for example, I don’t have to risk a potential car crash by sending them messages—instead, I can simply check their location on Life360. The concern regarding Life360 is justifiable, though. In the hands of nosy or overprotective parents, some users, specifically children and teens, can get the sense they’re always being watched, posing privacy issues. 

While I can personally see the situation both ways, I can’t say the same for my other family members. My dad, Tao, uses Life360 religiously. He was the first to find out about Life360 around 2 years ago and encouraged my family to download it. On a day-to-day basis, he mainly uses Life360 to make sure that me and my brother, Andrew, are up and heading to our classes on time, calling us if our GPS locations aren’t where they should be. This happened quite a bit to Andrew during the first semester. 

“Every day, if it’s close to his first class’ time but he still stays in the dorm, I know that he did not wake up. So I call him. I can determine if the student is at the dorm or the main building through Life360.”

Meanwhile, Andrew despises Life360 to the extent that at times, he’s turned off location tracking, removing the ability for his family to know where he is. Disturbed by regular texts from his parents to check up on him and to remind him to attended various activities (eating at Sodexo is a popular one), he withdrew from Life360 in favor of a sense of privacy and individuality. 

“Life360 has been used as a ‘don’t get lost’ tool. It’s mostly for safety. I’m a little concerned if my parents are using it as a means of, like, seeing where I am at every second of the day. Sometimes I go a little paranoid and it’s scaring me …  It makes you feel a little vulnerable or dominated. It makes you feel like you’re under other people’s control.” 

When questioned about these potential privacy concerns of Life360, Tao noted that the consent to share one’s location is heavily based on trust for those that receive it.

“When you sign up with Life360, you make an agreement: we are a family. Just like if you don’t have Life360, you can let your kids know [where you are]: I’m in the shower, basement, garden. The question is if you want your family members to know it. If the answer is yes, then why not? That depends on who is part of your team. You don’t want to share that with, for example, your teacher. Why should my math teacher want to know whether if I’m in the shower or the bathroom? That’s not okay. It depends on who you trust.”

He also pointed out the Life360 can be especially helpful in emergency situations. This is true—in the recent past, several stories have risen regarding how the app has supposedly saved the lives of children and teens. In response to one case, Life360 wrote, “It’s stories like these that remind us that we’re not just building an app, we’re helping families and friends stay safe” (Life360).

Andrew agrees that the element of safety that Life360 provides is beneficial, but he doesn’t feel that it’s enough to justify the burden of carrying around his parents’ presence wherever he goes. As it turns out, he and other like-minded teens might have other concerns: users’ location data may have viewers beyond just family members, as evidenced by a recent notice given to Life360 users in California.

In the form of an in-app notification, Life360 outlined its relationship with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), stating that, “We may collect and sell personal information, including your precise location, for advertising purposes” (Life360). Users have the right to opt out. How different Life360’s data selling is from data selling by, say, Google, is a question for another day. 

As children start to join the digital world at younger ages, there’s no indication of stopping for Life360’s growth. To Tao, that’s a good sign, especially considering his internet-less upbringing in China, where there were “kids being kidnapped, brought away, and lost.” Looking to the future, he speculates that, with the universalization of 5G, Life360’s current slow-speed GPS tracking can evolve into a huge, high-speed web of location-sharing cars that can instantaneously detect the locations of nearby obstacles. To Andrew, whose concerns may solely arise from a phase of teenage isolationism, he dismisses any benefits of this hypothetical future with, “That still means that your parents would know your location.” Ultimately, the question of “creepy or cautious” can only be answered through an assessment of trust. If you trust who you share your information with, then Life360 is justifiably cautious. If you don’t, well, then it’s straight up creepy. 

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