February 05, 2009

Critics Lose Their Bearings Over Google Latitude

Greetings. With Google's announcement of their new Latitude "friends tracking" location service for cell phones and other devices, Privacy International has once again taken the opportunity to shoot various misplaced barbs in Google's direction.

Without getting into all of the technical mumbo-jumbo here, I'll simply point out that while potential abuses of GPS devices (particularly when attached to or part of cell phones) are very real, attacking the sort of opt-in service represented by Latitude seems to be demonstrating an almost amusing lack of understanding relating to GPS/phone technology.

The reason why is simple in the extreme. While we can argue about data retention policies, and postulate complicated abuse scenarios, the real GPS risk to cell phone users isn't from openly promoted, commercial, opt-in services (of which Latitude is but one example).

Rather, the major danger is from purpose-built programs designed from the ground up for surreptitious tracking of individuals, unencumbered by such niceties as public disclosure, opt-in requirements, and privacy policies.

Give me an hour or so, and I could write a program to silently access many cell phones' GPS units at intervals and shoot the users' coordinates down the phones' data connections to never-never land, with the phones' owners likely unaware what was going on unless they were particularly attentive.

If you wanted to track someone's location without their knowledge, would you really want to get Google involved in the loop unnecessarily, using a publicly known application that could be easily stumbled upon by the user? Of course not!

This doesn't address the broader issue though. While attacking Google over Latitude is a ridiculous exercise, the fact that cell phone GPS units can potentially be abused in truly nasty ways by specialized, hidden software is a genuine concern.

But GPS capabilities are rapidly becoming the rule in cell phones, not the exception.

The legitimate benefits of GPS-type functions in cell phones are undeniable, and are even required to one extent or another in the U.S. by FCC E911 requirements. Cell phones without data capabilities are becoming few and far between, and even without a data connection, location data could be "secretly" transmitted via text messages (with significantly more probability of exposure).

There are a variety of technical and user interface approaches to help minimize the risks of "invisible" GPS tracking by any applications, and a public discussion about the pros and cons of cell phone GPS systems, and how they should best be managed and controlled, seems completely appropriate.

However, if we're going to have such a dialogue, it's important that we stay in focus and not waste time with inappropriate posturing whenever Google brings out a new product.

Google's Latitude is not the problem -- it's a well thought out, opt-in offering.

GPS itself, in a significant number of contexts, can indeed be abused in ways that can cause serious problems -- and yet GPS also can be an incredibly useful wonder in a range of extremely important or just plain fun legitimate applications.

When it comes to GPS and cell phones, let's keep our eyes on the ball, and not be distracted by irrelevant antics.


Posted by Lauren at February 5, 2009 04:42 PM | Permalink
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