Google’s Latitude and Privacy Concerns

by on February 7, 2009 · 31 comments

Google LatitudeGoogle’s latest major launch is “Latitude,” a geo-location service that lets users find friends on a digital map and then network with them. These services are often referred to as “LBS,” which stands for “location-based services.” I wrote about LBS here before in my essay on “The Next Great Technopanic: Wireless Geo-Location / Social Mapping.” As I pointed out in that piece, LBS raise privacy concerns with some people because, by their nature, these technologies involve the tracking of users.

But I’ve argued that those concerns are generally over-blown, especially because you have to download and opt-in to these services. In other words, you know what you’re getting into. Moreover, companies who offer these services, like Loopt and now Google, go out of their way to offer privacy safeguards. Indeed, even some privacy activists agree.

For example, Michael Zimmer of the School of Information Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is someone who pays close attention to privacy issues and is often critical of Google and other companies for supposedly not paying enough attention to privacy concerns. In the case of Latitude, however, he argues that “Google Actually Got it (Mostly) Right.”  Here’s his snapshot 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

Google’s complete privacy policy for Latitude can be found here.

Frankly, I think Google–like Loopt before them–has gone above and beyond the call of duty to appease privacy-sensitive users and privacy activists. In my opinion, the privacy concerns about LBS services are really much ado about nothing.  Although they’ll never do it, what I’d like to hear Google say to the extremely privacy-sensitive users and activists is:  “Look, we’re giving you a great new free service that you can choose to use and we’re including plenty of privacy safeguards if you are sensitive about your personal information. So, we’ve done our part, now it’s your choice–and responsibility–about how to use it from here.”  I mean, really, what more is it that people want!

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