Google’s Privacy Problem
“Latitude” software insists on gathering uncomfortable amounts of information.


I am locked in a battle with Google for control of my cellphone, and Google is winning.

If you have an Android device (Google’s smartphone), it may recently have installed a new app from Google called “Latitude.” It was part of a system update, so I didn’t pay any attention when it showed up. But Tuesday night, I got an e-mail from Google saying that Latitude was running and reporting my location.

The notification was written to be ignored: E-mail from Google usually says it’s from Google. This came from “noreply,” which made it look like spam.

I didn’t want Google tracking my location. I tried to uninstall Latitude, but could not. The app doesn’t show up in your task manager when it’s running, nor will you find it in the apps manager. It seemed the only thing I could do with Latitude was turn it on.

The disguised-as-spam e-mail (which Google had sent “to protect your privacy”) had a link to the Latitude help center. There I learned how to log out of Latitude. My phone then told me it was no longer sharing my location.

Job done? No. Google may still track your location, even if you prevent Latitude from blabbing to your friends. When you open a map, a little flashing crosshairs appears just to let you know that Google has you in its sights. But the tracking doesn’t stop when you close the map. Google monitors your location continuously, day and night, even if no apps are running.

To prevent this, you’ll need to go to a submenu under the settings menu and disable “Google location services.” You may then feel safe from Google, since you’re using only “standalone GPS.” But it turns out that by using the GPS “you are enabling access to all location information by any third party . . . ” The privacy notice adds, ominously: “Enabling this functionality could pose certain risks to users of this device.” The risks are not enumerated.

Why bother getting upset about this? Google claims its location-tracking software is not a violation of your privacy because it’s optional. But the software installs itself, privacy warnings are intentionally downplayed, and the average user will get bored or frustrated long before he succeeds in turning the system off (or is misled into thinking he has done so). Is that optional?

Good programmers like finding clever ways to nudge users. If you visit Latitude’s Web page on your PC, for example, Google will ask you for permission to share your location. If you click “no,” you get an alert box with only one button — “go back.” (And get asked for permission again.) No is not an option.

Google’s privacy violations are insidious. It’s impossible to know or say exactly what Google is gleaning from your phone, how it connects the dots about your private life, and what it shares. Reading its privacy policy doesn’t shed much light. Sure, Google denies it will share your location with a third party. But if it collects a history of your locations, essentially creating a new piece of information — will it share that?

This subtle and progressive privacy rollback has disturbing potential implications. The information Google collects could be useful to the government. If your phone knows where you are, it can figure out how fast you’re going. So perhaps instead of highway cops (or Euro-menace speed cameras) we should let your smartphone give you a speeding ticket. The software is easy to write; it only remains for some bright bureaucrat to put the idea forward as a way to save money and reduce traffic accidents. The argument will be that you’ve already consented to location-monitoring — so why should a law-abiding citizen be afraid of speed monitoring for the safety of the community?

Google is betting that the desire for exciting new services trumps privacy concerns,  especially when new services are easy to understand and the effect on privacy is inscrutable. In the meantime, be careful what you do in the presence of your phone — Google is watching you.

— Daniel Gelernter is an occasional contributor to NRO and The Weekly Standard.


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