Friday, February 6, 2009

Google Latitude: Big Brother Won’t Be Watching Me

Google recently released an update to the popular Google Maps. called Google Latitude, which provides the ability to track your location real time. It’s been in beta testing for a while, but now it’s ready for everyone to use.

It can be used with any mobile device (like your cell phone), or on your PC. It will track your location in real time, so anyone to whom you allow access to view your location in Google Latitude can see where you are at the present time. (See the short video below from Google, which shows how it works.)

Maybe it’s just me, but why does this mildly creep me out? Are we giving away too much information about ourselves? Granted, you need only allow access to those people who you want to see your location, but the fact that the information is being collected by some outside source bothers me a bit. I’m not worried about my relatives seeing my whereabouts. They already know that on the days and times that I blog a lot I am nailed to my chair in front of a computer. But do they really need to potentially see where I am every time I leave the house? My concern is what other people can do with this information. Maybe I grew up in an area where the book “1984” by George Orwell with “Big Brother” watching you was a concept that terrified, but this does seem too much like “Big Brother” to me. A recent article from Computer World speaks to some of the risks:

Used correctly, such a system can offer great benefits, but misuse can be equally damaging. Even if Google have built a 'privacy-positive' system there are residual privacy risks, which include:

Latitude installed on mobile devices without the users' knowledge - for example, a jealous partner installing it on their partner's phone to track where they go (if they have physical access to the handset then this should be trivial to accomplish);

Hacks used to install Latitude on a handset without the need for physical verification, or to suppress warning messages that the service is running;

Users simply forgetting that their handset is transmitting their location when they go somewhere that they wish to keep from others;

Unauthorised access to back-end services such that an unauthorised user can track individuals' locations.

Privacy advocates have already commented on these problems, but my biggest concern is the inevitability of irresponsible sharing of location data by users who don't really know the other parties involved. Take a look at the willingness with which many social networking users will share a lot of personal information with people that they've never met before. It would be very easy to integrate Latitude with Facebook or Myspace, and as soon as that happens, users will open up their location to their entire address book, or even to any user at all. It would then seem to be a matter of time before we see frauds, burglaries and physical assaults inspired by a user's location.

Yikes! Too much information can possibly get into the wrong hands. And despite the fact that Google reportedly says they won’t be storing the information about your location, somehow I just don’t trust that it will stay this way. The next thing you know, someone could be issuing subpoenas for the information and people could find their harmless trips and jaunts to come back to haunt them in ways they never expected, or in ways I can’t even imagine yet. OK, I am watching too much Law & Order.

I suppose that part of my problem is that I have always been a private person, and likewise with web services like Facebook and Twitter, I just don’t see the need for someone to know where I am and what I am doing every minute of the day. My life is not so important in the grand scheme of things that I have to report on every little detail. By the way, I do have a Facebook account, but I only have two friends, both are relatives. I don’t feel like that makes me some sort of social loser. If I want to keep in touch, there is always my double-secret personal blog, a phone, and email for those people I don’t see regularly. They are also busy enough that they don’t need to watch out for what I’m doing.

I wrote the other day about turning up my nose at Twitter – and I may be softening on the issue as it relates to my blogs. But Google Latitude is just too much for this private person to bear.

Check out my blog home page for the latest information, here.


samfan said...

I agree with you on this one. I won't be using Latitude. I do have two blogs and a twitter, but no facebook, so maybe I am a bit of a computer loser, but that's alright with me. I didn't know that you had another blog! You are one busy person!!!

The Frequent Critic said...

Samfan, you are definitely no loser!

I only post on my "personal" blog a few times a month, so that one doesn't take too much time.

Muze said...

No you aren't watching too much Law & Order. The neat tricks police and perps can pull with google latitude and maps are too close for comfort. The right to privacy has been established as a constitutional right for a while now, and if you took a survey of Americans you would find that Americans say they want privacy and agree that such a right is protected by the constitution.

But our judiciary has been reluctant to expand these rights outside of traditional areas such as family issues. Although the right to privacy is most closely associated with reproductive freedom, there is a conservative movement to roll these protections back. So in addition to abortion rights, they would like to overturn the Griswold vs. Connecticut decision that struck down a law prohibiting birth control. That's what we have to look forward to.

But I digress. The courts have also greatly narrowed the scope of the Fourth Amendment, so that people can expect even more intrusive searches and seizures. Our embrace of these technologies will certainly have unintended consequences, because courts have decided that if you are in a place where you don't have a "reasonable expectation of privacy" you are screwed. Sit through a criminal procedure class and you'll find out you don't have reasonable expectation of privacy in your car, yard or garage. So your prediction about the way the tech will be used is dead on. They will say you have no expectation of privacy online either.

Recently the Supreme Court has started dismantling the Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches by dumping the exclusionary rule. May sound like a good idea to a lot of people, but it is quite radical. My own view is that if they stop throwing out the fruits of an illegal search, i.e. illegally seized evidence, then the police have zero incentive not to perform illegal searches. What we now have is a system and constitution that are being defined by criminals and crimes and the drug war, where we are writing the law to make sure no bad guys get away. It may be hard to fathom, but sometimes it is better for a bad drug dealer to get away than to change the constitution because we don't like drugs.

Sorry for the rant. I'm actually a private person as well, and I remember in the old days we liked the internet for the anonymity. Now we have facebook and myspace and twitter (I see no need for twitter), and all of them creep me out.