Privacy group calls Google Latitude a 'danger' to security

Upgrade to Google Maps lets friends, family, employers know one's every move

A privacy group is calling Google Inc.'s new mapping application an "unnecessary danger" to users' security and privacy.

The criticism comes just a day after Google Inc. unveiled Google Latitude, an upgrade to Google Maps that allows people to track the exact location of friends or family through their mobile devices. Google Latitude not only shows the location of friends, but it can also be used to contact them via SMS, Google Talk or Gmail.

Today, Privacy International is raising a red flag about the technology.

"Many people will see Latitude as a cool product, but the reality is that Google has yet again failed to deliver strong privacy and security," said Simon Davies, director of London-based Privacy International, in a statement. "The company has a long way to go before it can capture the trust of phone users. As it stands right now, Latitude could be a gift to stalkers, prying employers, jealous partners and obsessive friends. The dangers to a user's privacy and security are as limitless as the imagination of those who would abuse this technology."

Google, responding to Computerworld questions in an e-mail, said their engineers and designers took privacy and security concerns into account when they created Google Latitude.

"Concerns have been raised about the possibility of the product being installed onto someone's mobile phone covertly," said a Google spokeswoman. "While many of the scenarios that have been described are unlikely, we take this issue seriously and always listen to feedback from our users. We already have a safety feature working on certain mobile devices that actively alerts users that Latitude is running, and we are in the process of extending this notification to other mobile platforms supporting Google Latitude, which will be ready within a week."

Privacy International, in an online posting, expressed concern that Google Latitude lacks sufficient safeguards to keep someone from surreptitiously opting into the tracking feature on someone else's device. The problem arises when someone can gain physical access to another person's cell phone.

The privacy group added that the only way to reduce this threat is to have a regular message pop up on the phone, reminding the user that Latitude is in use.

Google's spokeswoman noted that the message that pops on BlackBerry devices is engaged when Latitude has been installed but not been used for a while.

That doesn't appear to be an adequate safeguard for the privacy group, which said in a written statement, "If the tracked party is unaware that her phone has been enabled, the Latitude settings could indefinitely be set to continuous tracking, thus ensuring that the alert message is never sent from Google."

In an interview on Tuesday, Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said the Google tool is interesting even if there are obvious potential privacy issues when people know your every move.

Olds added that people need to think through who can access such personal information. "Users need to understand how to do it and why they probably don't want to constantly broadcast their locations to the world at large," he said.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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