Mobile location data could be a bountiful harvest of marketing research insights, but give consumers heartburn.

Writing in a GreenBook blog entry, Thaddeus Fulford-Jones, CEO of Locately, highlighted several exciting new research opportunities afforded by location data reported by smartphones and similarly enabled devices. Although the researcher in me shares his enthusiasm for the potential insights to be gained, the gadget-addicted consumer in me recoils at the thought of my whereabouts being tracked and dissected for marketing purposes.

Most users of devices offering location-enhanced features know that enabling such options constitutes consent to accompanying terms of service. For example, activating the Google-branded location services on my Android-based smartphone prompts me to “allow Google’s location service to collect anonymous location data.” I know that by sharing my location with Google and Verizon Wireless, I’ll receive search results which have greater geographic relevance than if I didn’t agree to the terms.

But, as with all personal information used in research, the key lies in obtaining informed consent from respondents. We’ve already seen well-publicized examples of studies in which respondent consent to tracking was not gathered properly, resulting in government scrutiny at both the state and federal levels. Equally important, though, is the research industry’s current lack of consensus on whether opt-in or opt-out is the model to follow when asking  consumers for permission to access their location data.

Fulford-Jones doesn’t address the issues of data privacy or the opt-in/opt-out conundrum in his blog post, but I sure  hope they’re on his mind. MRA’s Standards & Ethics Committee is currently examining these topics as part of its revision of the Association’s Code of Marketing Research Standards and aims to have recommendations drafted by the end of the summer.

As in so many research activities involving privacy concerns, if the profession gets it wrong, government intervention that could strangle innovation is just around the corner.