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UK gov gets twitchy on Google feature creep

Less lassitude on Latitude please

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Comment Google was the target of MPs' ire yesterday as four of them signed an Early Day Motion expressing concern about the chocolate factory's latest feature, one that allows willing subjects to be tracked through their phones.

Google's Latitude is a feature of Mobile Maps, and allows one to share one's location with selected friends. Most concerns revolve around the premise that users might be "encouraged" to count their boss amongst those "friends", but the Early Day Motion is more specific in asking that the UK Government "examine the privacy implications of Google Latitude and to take action to ensure that Latitude does not represent a privacy threat".

Device tracking is nothing new; the network operators routinely track handsets, and in Europe they store historical data for a year in case plod wants a peek. Commercial services tied into that capability are also commonplace, under self-regulation that requires regular SMS notifications that tracking is taking place, so it's not clear exactly what the MPs are complaining about.

The problem with Latitude is Google's publicity machine, and the awareness it generates. Mobile-phone users are still, generally, unaware that their location is being tracked and stored by the operator, and few are aware of applications such as Nokia's sports tracker that offer the same capability. So while Google doesn't bring anything technically new to the market, it does bring it with a lot more noise.

Early Day Motions aren't expected to be actually debated by Parliament - they are more of a way of attracting attention to MPs' pet issues. This one competes with a call for St Piran's day to be public holiday in Cornwall, and congratulatory recognition of Sir Bobby Charlton getting the Freedom of Manchester, as well as rather more pressing issues.

But we should be concerned about wider knowledge of tracking technology; once bosses start to exert subtle (or not so subtle) pressure on employees to "voluntarily" sign up to Latitude and share their location, the fear of being observed all day every day becomes real. Latitude does allow users to lie, but keeping up an effective fiction isn't as easy as it sounds, and the next service to be launched might not allow such er, latitude in the truth. ®

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