RealTime IT News

Google Latitude and That Creepy Feeling

The needle on the creeped-out meter just moved a notch for privacy advocates with the release Wednesday of Google Latitude.

Using GPS and cell-tower triangulation, Google's tracking service lets people share their location with their friends using a mobile device. Unlike most Web-based behavioral targeting schemes, users have to opt-in to Latitude before friends can detect where they are.

People can make their location available to everyone in their circle, or they can limit their visibility to just certain people.

For all of Google's assurances that Latitude is only as invasive as you allow it to be, some skeptics remain unconvinced given all the data Google will be collecting from users.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Digital Democracy, is an outspoken privacy advocate who has long warned about Google compiling detailed profiles of its users.

"Google is all about expanding its data collection apparatus for marketing," Chester told InternetNews.com. "Latitude allows it to better track and analyze an individual user's behavior, location and network of friends and commercial relationships."

Chester's group recently petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to enact tougher rules for mobile marketers to protect consumer privacy.

We know you're watching how we watch you

Companies know they are straying into a privacy thicket when they start talking about location-tracking technologies that track our every move. Google, hardly a newcomer to the debate over how much Web firms should know about their customers, anticipated the concern in its release.

For one, it says that it only stores the most recently updated Latitude location on its servers, and that advertisers are not privy to that information.

"Fun aside, we recognize the sensitivity of location data, so we've built fine-grained privacy controls right into the application," Vic Gundotra, Google's vice president of engineering, wrote in a blog post announcing Latitude.

"Since you may not want to share the same information with everyone, Latitude lets you change the settings on a friend-by-friend basis," Gundotra said.

It also offers the option of limiting the location description to city-level, rather than the most precise available through Latitude's GPS and cell-tower triangulation technologies.

If you really want to stay off the grid, you can turn the Latitude application off, or even mislead your friends by manually entering a fictitious location.

But even those granular privacy controls could still spell trouble for the absent-minded. Imagine the boyfriend who told his significant other that he was too sick to make their date, only to inadvertently leave his homing device on as he booms for Tijuana with the fellows.

Google has a precaution for that unhappy scenario, too.

"If a user is concerned about forgetting, but still wants to use Latitude, they can choose to manually set their location, so they report to their friends when they want to," a Google spokeswoman told InternetNews.com.

Location-based signs of the times

With the release of Latitude, Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) becomes the latest entrant offering location-based services in a burgeoning market. Already mobile carriers such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint offer users GPS tracking features. Google Latitude's social-networking elements bring it into direct competition with services like Loopt, Whrrl, ZYB and Helio's Buddy Beacon.

As different types of services offering such precise location-based targeting spread, privacy advocates like Chester are staying vigilant. After all, giving advertisers the ability to track you like a LoJacked car is the stuff of Big Brother, right? For its part, Google is clear about its policies.

"Google does not share your location with advertisers," the spokeswoman said. The location could determine which ad Google serves up on a user's mobile browser, however. "Google Maps for mobile or Google Latitude might display ads based on the map you are viewing, which may or may not be your location," she added.

Google said it also comes with features on the BlackBerry version of the software to display several notifications (i.e. pop-up messages) to your device which inform the user that your phone's location is being shared. Look for that to show up on other devices in the near future.

In addition to the BlackBerry, Latitude is available for phones running Nokia's Symbian S60 operating system and Windows Mobile. A version for Android-based phones is due out in the coming days, and Google plans to bring Latitude to the iPhone in the near future.

Dave Gwozdz, CEO of the mobile advertising firm Mojiva, says the long-hyped notion of address-specific mobile targeting might be so much wishful thinking.

"For years, we have been hearing pundits speak of the day when you are walking by some retailer and you get an ad for a discount if you just make a hard right and open the door and come in," he told InternetNews.com.

While such a marketing regime might be "slightly plausible," Gwozdz said it would depend on so many circumstances aligning just right that "the odds are too great against its success."

At least, for now.