Where to draw the line on Google

Last week, the issue was Google's StreetView and its tendency toward being a tool for both good and evil. This week, it's Google Latitude, and the argument is the same. While knowing where your colleagues or loved ones are at all times can be a comfort in some cases, the same tool in more nefarious hands can be anything but, as explained by Privacy International. Google keeps churning out these double-edged tools, but the question is: Where should we draw the line?

While Google claims its Latitude security is layered and requires an opt-in from all parties before it's activated, Privacy International's beef with Latitude centers more on social-engineering-type security issues (and for a look at how easy these are to pull off, see Joan Goodchild's astute Anatomy of a Hack article). All it takes is for someone to "borrow" your phone for a minute to handle the opt-in, and there'd be no way of knowing you were being tracked. So employers wishing to keep tabs on their employees can simply issue them phones in which Latitude is already enabled, or jealous boyfriends can simply activate Latitude on their girlfriend's cell once she leaves the room. Scary.

In reference to StreetView and its use to thwart a kidnapping and nab some drug dealers, Elle Smith Fagan writes:

Street View is good - with our growing population, and security needs, it helps to catch them on a cam. However, I was born in 1947, and though modern and jogging around and with a site of my own, the dominant feeling thru my childhood was that such surveillance of all people, all of the time was a horror! The very famous Bradbury book, "Fahrenheit 451" (see Wikipedia topic on it) describes it so, and its concepts were talked about with fear and passion at every table in my teens. What we need is a summit by civic and mental health pros, of top wisdom and skills, to help humanity RESOLVE this issue. If we save a million and some lives with constant surveillance, but provoke the human group unconscious to the final destruction, where is the virtue and wisdom?

Google seems to be slowing stripping away long-established levels of privacy (your interests via your search queries, your home and front yard via StreetView, your private correspondence via Gmail, and now your actual physical location 24-7 via Latitude). But it does it in slow, barely discernable increments. And at first blush, most of its tools seems like a fair trade-off: sure Google knows what I'm searching for, but it finds it faster and better than anything else. Or sure, Google is analyzing all my e-mails for content, but it's free and always available, so it's worth it. Always less privacy but cool new capabilities.

While some, like the EU or Privacy International keep calling Google on its practices, the vast majority of Google users choose simply to take the functionality. Since Google says it tries not to be evil, what could be the harm? And for those uncomfortable with Google's practices, they can simply choose not to use Google's tools. End of problem.

But think about it this way. Would users embrace Latitude if it was proffered by someone besides Google, say the NSA or CIA? As Fagan says, we need to foster a dialogue here and make sure that at the very least, users are cognizant of the risks vs. the rewards in new technology.

What do you think? Is Google ushering us down a slippery slope, or is this just all paranoia and overhype? Add your voice to the discussion.

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