Google Latitude: An 'insidious threat'?

by Ben Smith on 5th May 2009


In February Google announced Latitude – an extension to Google Maps which added social location-sharing on web and mobile devices. Relatively unremarkable in terms of feature-set it does, however, stand-out in terms of the accuracy of location sensing and the range of devices it runs on.

Almost immediately privacy concerns were raised in the UK by the campaign group Privacy International and in the UK parliament, MP Tom Brake tabled and early day motion supporting their report that it ‘substantially endanger[ed] user privacy‘ and that ‘Latitude appears to present an immediate privacy threat‘.  Publicly he criticised the service as an ‘insidious threat to our liberties‘.

Notably this criticism hasn’t been repeated by US-based groups who went as far as praising Google’s approach after initial concerns.

The Really Mobile Project contacted the MP – previously an IT consultant with the firm Cap Gemini – to ask him about his concerns:

Really Mobile: Have you used or received a demonstration of Latitude?  

Tom Brake: I have tried Google Latitude. I installed Google Latitude on my PDA and asked a member of my staff to look at my position on Google Maps while I was going to several meeting across London. I left the device ON and received notification about three or four days later reminding me that Latitude was reporting my position live on the Internet.

I could check for myself what was reported by Privacy International and most of the journalists. When you close the program, you may think that your phone is not tracked anymore but it is not true. Nothing on my screen or the phone settings indicated that the program was still running!

RM: Have you addressed you concerns directly to Google and can you share any response?

TB: I posted and faxed a letter to Eric Schmidt, Chief Executive at Google raising a number of concerns and I have also written to Jacqui Smith. I will be happy to share any response with you.

RM: Was the motion based on any other sources than the Privacy International report referenced?

TB: Google Latitude was launched 2 months ago and Privacy International issued their report shortly after.  I made the decision not to issue the motion at that time. I wanted to wait and take more time to see what specialists and experts thought.

The motion was mostly based on the PI report, but also a large number of articles published by the press worldwide.

RM: Have you taken any steps to validate that the content of the PI report is true and accurate?

TB: Privacy International produce serious reports. My office conducted a series of investigations based on Google’s FAQ and Google’s official video of Google Latitude which explains in details how Latitude works.

As I mentioned it earlier in this interview, I have installed Google Latitude on my personal PDA and checked if PIs concerns were valid.

RM: Why did you exclusively reference Google and not existing identical systems from other firms, including industry leaders such as Nokia?

TB: You are absolutely right, other industry leaders such as Nokia have launched identical systems. But I decided to highlight Google for two reasons:

First Google is one of the biggest Internet companies. Almost every single internet user uses Google’s search engine everyday. The applications they develop are likely to become universal applications (the fact they acquired 1 million customers in only one week confirms this)

Second Google made their product very prominent by highlighting its success.  This warranted some additional scrutiny.

RM: What is the specific failing that Google should address in its solution – should it be shutdown completely or is it exclusively privacy controls which are insufficient and which standard should they meet?

TB: In the letter sent to Google, Chris Huhne and I did not ask for Latitude to be shut down by Google. In summary, the danger arises when a second party can gain physical access to a user’s phone and enables Latitude without the owner’s knowledge. So, we expressed concerns about the settings and urged Google to set up a daily text message which would reach all devices enabled with Latitude, mentioning the status of Latitude (OFF or ON) by default. This will ensure that the user keeps in mind that the device is on or rapidly has it flagged up to them if it was enabled without their knowledge.

What do you think of this response to Google’s service?   Should politicians be concerned with services such as Latitude?  Does the way the service operates pose a threat to peoples’ privacy?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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