With Latitude, Google Actually Got it (Mostly) Right

This week, Google launched Google Latitude, a new Google Maps feature that lets users share location data with friends, using either a mobile phone or through an interface on iGoogle. (see how it works here)

Unsurprisingly, concerns have arisen regarding the privacy implications of Latitude, and I, of course, have taken issue in the past with Google’s approach to (not) protecting locational privacy (as well as cellphone tracking in general).

But this time, I think Google got it right, and designed Latitude with user privacy in mind.

Here’s a quick rundown (based on my analysis of the help pages and this video) of what Google’s done to help give users control of their information flows in Latitude:

  • Only friends you have explicitly invited or accepted can see your location
  • You can hide your location to everyone so no friends can see where you are (and neither will Google)
  • You can hide your location to select friends
  • You can share only city-level data with select friends
  • You can manually select a location on the map that will be shared with friends (which means you can send the wrong location to obfuscate your location)
  • And, perhaps most importantly, Google is not logging your pings to servers; they only keep you latest location on file

Now, Privacy International has made some waves with their strongly-worded condemnation of Latitude. PI’s main concern is that someone could have Latitude surreptitiously activated on their phone, allowing employers, spouses, parents, stalkers, etc to track their location. While possible, this seems an unlikely scenario (and, besides, businesses have much better ways of tracking employees, as do parents their kids). That said, I do agree with PI that it would be wise for Google to create some kind of persistent warning/reminder to users that they are sharing their location with the data-servers in Mountain View (this alrleady exists on some phones, and only after a period of inactivity).

In sum, compared to Street View and the reluctance to provide a direct link to its privacy policy, I think Google (mostly) got it right this time.

:: As an aside, Google seems to customize the maps that appear on the Latitude homepage based on the geographic location of your IP address. When I pulled up the page from my office, it showed a map of Milwaukee. When I used a proxy, it showed Cambridge. When I used an unresolvable IP, it just showed Manhattan (unless, of course, Google knows I spent my last 7 years in NYC, and that’s why it’s showing that by default! :) ).

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