Google's Tracking Latitude to play dumb

Google is promising that its new location-reporting service Latitude, which lets you broadcast where you are to your friends, will have a memory leak and won’t remember anything.

That’s a feature, not a bug. The intention is to make sure Latitude doesn’t become an honeypot for cops wanting to be able to easily find out where you have been or even say the names of everyone who attended, or was near, a political protest.

The policy, created in consultation with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, puts Latitude on equal privacy footing with Loopt, a popular friend-finding service that predates Latitude. Both services now overwrite your previous location with your new location, and don’t keep logs.

How and when police can turn people’s cell phones into tracking devices remains an unsettled legal question. Increasingly, however, judges are deciding that the government needs to show probable cause a person committed a crime in order to force a mobile provider to turn over cell tower information, including stored logs.

But the government tells courts, almost always in secret proceedings, that it is entitled to location records without a warrant, even if the person involved isn’t even a suspect in an investigation. The government argues you have no privacy interest in the data since you already told it to your phone company.

Loopt — and now Google’s policy — is that when its users tell their friends where they are, they are communicating — like sending an email –, and the government needs to get a wiretap order. That’s even tougher to get than a search warrant.

The EFF’s Kevin Bankston applauded this stance in his post announcing Google’s decision:

We are incredibly happy that Google has taken this rare step, not only by making the right decision about the privacy of its users’ data, but by making that policy public. When it comes to government surveillance, the legal interface between law enforcement and your phone and internet service providers is a shadowy place, and it’s often unclear what types of data companies are willing to provide to the government based on what types of legal process.

It’s still not clear why anyone above the age of 23 would want to constantly broadcast their location to their friends or even the world.

But in an age where people do so, it’s good to see that at least some of the companies who know where we are at any given moment realize that that knowledge comes with responsibility.

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