Google Latitude Provokes Privacy Fears

By Matthew Harwood

One of the world's foremost privacy organizations criticized Google's new Latitude feature today,  which allows people to track each other from their phones or computers as they go about their daily business.

Privacy International said, "While it is clear that Google has made at least some effort to embed privacy protections, Latitude appears to present an immediate privacy threat."

Google's Latitude feature works with Google Maps to allow users to monitor their friends' and family members' movements after each user voluntarily agrees to it.

What scares Privacy International the most, however, is the ability of one user to covertly activate Latitude on another person's device then track that person's movement .

Privacy International offered scenarios where this could happen, including:

  • An employer provides staff with Latitude-enabled phones on which a reciprocal sharing agreement has been enabled, but does not inform staff of this action or that their movements will be tracked.
  • An individual gains access to an unattended phone (at a bar, security checkpoint, or service vendor) and enables Latitude without the owners knowledge.
  • A Latitude-enabled phone is given as a gift.

The real kicker for Privacy International is that Latitude's privacy settings actually can undermine privacy more than protect it

Latitude has four privacy settings. A user can continuously broadcast his location, manually set location, hide his location, or turn it off completely. It's the third option that has Privacy International concerned, because that hidden user can still track others while "invisible" to other users. The monitored party has no idea she's being tracked.

"As it stands right now, Latitude could be a gift to stalkers, prying employers, jealous partners and obsessive friends," said  Simon Davies, director of Privacy International. "The dangers to a user’s privacy and security are as limitless as the imagination of those who would abuse this technology."

Privacy International wants Google to make Latitude warn users that location tracking is enabled and that others can see where they are.

Google says they already provide that warning on all BlackBerry phones, but have yet to extend the notification alerts to other supported phone models.

"We have implemented a feature on the BlackBerry version of the software to display several notifications (i.e. pop-up messages) to a device which informs the user that his or her phone's location is being shared," a Google spokesperson told the BBC. "We hope to extend this to other versions of the software soon."

Consumers with Latitude-enabled phones (find a list here) would be smart to regularly check their privacy settings, think twice about beaming their location continuously, and not leave their phone unattended.


Google Maps Latitude up with

Google Maps Latitude up with Twitter and Facebook in some mashup. Google Latitude is available free in the UK, US, including New York, above, and 24 other countries. I am really wondering about this technology.


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