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Google Tracker Appeals to Facebook Crowd, Spurs Privacy Worries

2009.02.18

 

 

Richard Acton-Maher of San Francisco was in nearby Berkeley last month and wanted to meet friends for lunch. Instead of making calls to see who was around, he looked at a digital map on his iPhone that plotted their locations.

“One of my friends was also there,” said Acton-Maher, 24, who used a service from a startup company called Loopt Inc. “I gave him a call and met him for lunch. It just enhances the communications tools that I already have.”

Google Inc., encouraged by people’s willingness to share their personal lives on sites like Facebook, is betting more people like Acton-Maher will post their whereabouts online. The owner of the most popular search engine started a program this month called Latitude, seeking to compete with mobile networking services such as Loopt, Match2Blue, Whrrl and Limbo.

Besides competition, Google’s effort to turn mobile phones into tracking devices faces criticism from privacy advocates. Useful for friends and family, location data would also be valuable to the government, said Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a not-for-profit organization focused on civil-liberties.

“This is certainly valuable information to investigators and potentially to civil litigants,” Bankston said. “This type of location information presents a very new sensitive data flow.”

Google says its privacy settings address such concerns. People using Google’s mobile maps can opt not to use Latitude and choose whom they share their information with. The program also only stores the user’s last known location, not a full history of their travels, said Steve Lee, a Google product manager.

‘Ephemeral Data’

While Google doesn’t plan to store the data, the government could still go to court to ask for the company’s help in tracking someone during an investigation, Bankston said.

Google has faced criticism from privacy advocates for keeping users’ search records for too long. In September, the company halved the time it holds records to nine months. Microsoft Corp. has an 18-month cutoff for data retention. Yahoo! Inc.’s is about 90 days.

With Latitude, location data is erased every few minutes to an hour and can’t be retrieved afterwards. There’s no reason to keep location data for longer, Lee said.

“Making the data collection ephemeral makes a very large difference in the privacy calculus,” said Chris Hoofnagle, senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology at the University of California.

Google, based in Mountain View, California, fell $5.37 to $357.68 on Feb. 13 in Nasdaq Stock Market trading. The shares tumbled 56 percent last year.

Attracting Ads

Latitude is available in 27 countries and will soon work on Apple Inc.’s iPhone. The feature is an add-on to Google’s Maps for Mobile program, which lets users find addresses and businesses.

Users can broadcast their exact location or just the city they’re in. They can hide their whereabouts from some users or even set their location far from where they actually are. That way, a cheating spouse or lazy employee could still throw others off their trail.

Google is adding more mapping features to attract users and encourage them to search more often. For now, Google shows ads on maps, though it doesn’t charge for them. Latitude doesn’t have any ads.

The number of people in the U.S. that have phones with location features will increase ten-fold to 30.9 million by 2012, according to research firm IDC. The price of mobile phones with positioning features has fallen more than 50 percent in the past few years, said Christopher Collins, an analyst with Yankee Group in Boston.

Facebook, YouTube

People are also more willing to give up personal facts. Already, tens of millions are posting pictures, names and locations on Facebook, the world’s largest social-networking site. On Google’s YouTube, users upload 13 hours of footage every minute, including clips of themselves and friends.

“There’s a certain group of people who are very comfortable with being very public in their lives and sharing information,” said Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “For them, location is just more information that they’re comfortable with sharing.”

Stalkers

Some people do more than just share their whereabouts with friends and family. Loopt has a feature called Mix that lets users share their location with people nearby that have similar interests. About 25 percent of customers use this feature, said Sam Altman, chief executive officer of the Mountain View, California-based company.

Loopt is backed by Sequoia Capital, which funded Google and Yahoo.

Another startup, Frankfurt-based Match2Blue, lets people find each other on a digital map based on their common interests. For instance, University of Indiana alumni can search for other former students wherever they are.

Acton-Maher, who works at a technology company, said he’s careful not to give out too much information, and has considered the risk that he could attract unwanted attention, for example from stalkers.

“There will be a lot more people who are comfortable sharing their locations with small social circles,” he said.

 

Forrás: http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aS8DrblAaWOY

 

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