Comment: Google Latitude

200902121734.jpgIn the past week or so, Google has receive an enormous amount of attention because of their Latitude program. Latitude, once installed and enabled, will alert specified friends to your geographic location very specifically (i.e. street address) or more broadly (i.e. city). Google has developed this system so that users can turn off the system, can alter how precise it locates users, and has (really) just caught up to the technologies that their competitors have already been playing with (I wrote a little about Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle software, which is similar to Latitude, a few months ago).

While many people have already written and spoken about Latitude, I’ve found myself on a fence. On the one hand, I think that some of the criticisms towards the ‘privacy’ features of the program have been innane – at least one privacy advocate’s core ‘contribution’ to has been a worry that individuals might be given a phone with Latitude installed and active, without knowing about its presence or activation. As a result, they would be tracked without having consented to the program, or the geo-surveillance.

Forgive me, but this isn’t really a privacy problem that Google needs to address, but rather a User Interface issue for them, and a trust issue between the persons who are exchanging the Latitude-enabled device. While true that you could be given a Latitude-enabled phone by someone, they could also give you a GPS-enabled wristwatch, hire a PI, or do numerous other actions. That Google is providing another tool isn’t really the core issue that privacy advocates actually want to focus on. That said, it’s easier to ‘wage war’ against Google than actually address broader UI issues and consumer education challenges.

At the same time, as someone who worries about privacy issues, I am sympathetic to positions that state, roughly, “Latitude is a concern, not because of the service itself, but because Google isn’t being wholly transparent about data retention, analysis, etc.” (I should note that Google is stating that they only retain the most recent location update. In this way, it at least superficially appears that they are being fairly transparent about Latitude…) Moreover, there is set of a deeper issues with Google’s data retention (that extends beyond Latitude), which include: is data collected by Google on your movements subject to supeona? Can the government sue for it? What does it mean for your data to be housed in locations beyond your jurisdiction? Will this kind of data be subject to data retention requirements by governments? Can a government agency get a court order that will require Google to copy and transfer location data to law enforcement?

Something to note about all of these: They are part of a larger debate on data privacy, data security, data sharing and the role of law enforcement/national intelligence services/private purchase of this data. Latitude is implicated in that debate, but the larger debate needs to be had, not a debate that dominantly focuses on Latitude. Essentially, I’m saying that Latitude shouldn’t distract tremendous resources or time from those larger debates, and I worry that in chasing off after each new technology, rather than technology-classes, advocates run the risk of exhausting themselves without actually addressing their core concerns. What hasn’t been addressed (at least as far as I’ve read), is that the UI for the Latitude program is actually very explicit when it comes to where to adjust your privacy settings – see the image below for just how clear it is.


Google isn’t hiding the fact that people want to adjust their privacy – it’s two ‘clicks’ away from the google maps screen (‘Options’ >> ‘Privacy’). Personally, I think that the best thing that Google could do would be this: when a user first installs Latitude, they are immediately given the option to view Google’s brief privacy video associated with Latitude. The video does a decent job at alerting users to how privacy settings function, and can be viewed below:

Will this video address advocates’ larger concerns? No, it won’t, not really. It will, however, leave the consumer marginally more informed than they would have been if they hadn’t viewed the video. Consumers are more likely to watch a video that’s a few minutes long than read a privacy policy, and will likely only watch this video if it is either put in their face, or they are actively interested in the privacy policies associated with the service. The latter group will find out about Latitude’s privacy settings anyways – it’s the former group that will be best helped by putting the privacy video front and center. If Google were to give their users the option of viewing this video when the program was installed on either a computer of mobile device, I can only imagine that a vast number of the more reasonable privacy advocates would be satisfied. At the very least, Google’s rhetoric of ‘transparency’ would be more substantive, and hopefully advocates would be able to move on to substantively engage with deficiencies in the privacy information that was presented by Google than spin narratives that most consumers will scoff at.