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Google Latitude: no place to hide?

February 4, 2009

I’ve just seen that Google has launched its Latitude service, which allows you (once you register and add your phone number) to be tracked by all your ‘friends’, and correspondingly, for you so see your ‘friends’ – if they have signed up. I put the words friends in inverted commas with some sadness because the word seems to have become increasingly meaningless in the age of Facebook when accumulating ‘friends’ seems to have become a competitive sport. This is not entirely irrelevant to Latitude for reasons we will come to in a minute.

There are various questions about this.

A colleague comments that like many other tracking services, the way it is set up he assumed you could access the project if you just had access to someone else’s phone and a computer (or WAP/3G phone) at the same time. Perfect for a over-protective or suspicious parent, a suspicious, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend – or anyone else for that matter.

The privacy policies are a mixture of Google’s standard (and already questionable) privacy statement and a new set of policies on ‘location privacy’, which state that:

“Google does not share an individual person’s location with third parties without explicit permission. Before someone can view your location, you must either send a location request by adding them as a friend or accept their location request and choose to share back your location.”

You can also change settings so that your location can be automatically tracked, manually selected, or hidden. If you are signed out of the service, you will not be on any map either. You can also change settings for specific friends, including hiding your location from them, share only the city you are in, or removing them from your Latitude list.

Now this all sounds very good, even fun – although it could be a recipe for all kinds of suspicions and jealousies – but it all depends on what the nature of ‘friendship’ means to the person using the service. Friendship no longer seems to require personal knowledge but simply matching categories. I was writing earlier about the loss of trust in South Korea, but the reformation of trust that occurs through social networking seems not to require the dense networks of interdependence in real life that traditional forms of social trust were built on. It doesn’t seem like a substitute, the mixture of assumptions seems dangerous: a lack of genuine understanding combined with categorical friendship (analogous to categorical suspicion, the basis of profiling in policing) and technologies that unless actively adjusted all the time for all of those massive number of connections, allow you to be utterly exposed, laid bare in time and space.

The most extreme examples of this personal surveillance are not in the relatively comfortable worlds that tech enthusiasts inhabit but firstly, in conflict zones – after all ‘I know where you live’ has always been one of the most terrifying and chilling expressions you can hear in such circumstances (see Nils Zurawski’s article on Northern Ireland in Surveillance & Society) and now it could be in real time; and secondly, in authoritarian, or even just paranoid countries. Here, real-time location data could be a goldmine for intelligence services, and it is not as if Google and Yahoo and others have bravely resisted the attempt of, for example, the Chinese government to suborn them to its illiberal requirements.

Now, perhaps this makes me sound very conservative. I’ve never joined a single social networking service – like, how Twentieth Century is that?! – but I am also sure that this service will be both used and abused in all kinds of ways, some that we expect and some that we don’t. It might be a tool for overprotective parents, for jealous lovers, for stalkers and even for killers; but it will also be a tool for new forms of creativity, deception, performance and play.

Or it could be just utterly pointless and no-one will bother using it at all.

(thanks to simon for the heads up. As it happens, Surveillance & Society currently has a call for papers out on ‘Performance, New Media and Surveillance’, to be edited by John McGrath and Bill Sweeney)

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