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Implications of User Location Tracking -- The Growing Privacy-Publicacy Faultline -- Part II

The 'publicacy' trend, where technology increasingly makes public what used to be private, has reached another noteworthy milestone -- the popularization of location tracking of people via smart-phones. 

  • Google just launched a new free app for smart phones, Google Latitude, that uses location-technology to track users' physical movements and to and share those movements or locations with others.  

    Lets look at how this new development increases tension underneath the growing "privacy-publicacy faultline" that I described in my post on World Privacy Day last month.

    • I have three takeaways.

    First, the obviousness of the "creepy" publicacy factor in this instance -- forced more respect for privacy concerns.

    • Per Katherine Boehret of the WSJ: "Usability issues aside, location-based services like Latitude can be just plain creepy, especially when a Big Brother like Google is tracking your whereabouts. So Google incorporated easy-to-change privacy settings so that locations can be automatically detected, manually entered or completely hidden from other people.
    • The fact that Ms. Boehret characterized the service as "stalking" in both the first and second sentences of her review of the service, underscores the fact that this publicacy app raises serious privacy implications.
    • I commend Google for realizing that this app could not pass muster with privacy sensitivities/norms, if it did not seriously restrict the free and open nature of the app by requiring it only be "opt-in" -- and heavily controlled by the user.
      • It is also worth noting that this is a radically different privacy approach than Google has taken in its other publicacy apps like StreetView, or Google Earth, where people were given no opt-in ability of having their home or private property photographed for public view or not.
      • Apparently, the reason is that the implementation of those apps were not obvious to most everyone, because they did not personally notice when Google photographed their private residence.

    The publicacy takeaway here may be that for apps to practically respect the privacy of their users, it has to be obvious to users that they are giving up their privacy -- a publicacy variation of the old adage -- "what people don't know, won't hurt them..."

    Second, Google's high-profile, opt-in policy for its Google Latitude app appears to recognize or set a practical precedent for the industry that people have the implicit privacy right not to have their physical movements tracked, if they don't want them to be tracked.

    • This could have substantial implications for behavioral advertising privacy because many online entities, including the world leader in behavioral advertising, Google-DoubleClick, use cookies to track users clickstreams as users surf the Internet from website to website. 
    • In reality, many online companies routinely track users movements and location virtually on the web, which is analogous to Google's tracking of people's physical location with Google Latitude.   
      • This undisclosed tracking has prompted some consumer/privacy groups to call for an Internet "Do Not Track list" akin to the FTC's "Do Not Call List."        
    • The big question over time is what is the principle that guides online privacy here?
      • Is the principle that actively tracking, collecting, storing and collecting people's online/offline behavior must be authorized by the individual trackee at some point in some way?
        • Or will the current principle of "unauthorized-tracking" become the de facto and accepted norm?  
      • Why this development creates tension on the privacy/publicacy faultline is it is unclear where new publicacy apps like Google Latitude will push users privacy expectations and public policy over time.
    • Simply, do users have any privacy right not to be tracked by others?
      • Google's surprising privacy stance on Google Latitude appears to open the door to a more public discussion of that very question. 

    Third, press coverage of Google's new latitude app focused on Google's opt-in privacy policy, but surprisingly ignored the hidden economics of a publicacy app like Latitude.

    • Upon close review, Google's broad mobile privacy policy for Latitude provides Google with wide latitude to use the private information they collect on users' movements:
      • "...We also use the information for support, to develop new features, and to improve the overall quality of Google's products and services."
      • In other words, Google can use the private information it collects about where a user and/or their friends go to better target ads, and to create new ways to collect and analyze their private information. 

    Bottom line:

    Tensions will inevitably grow between publicacy innovation and privacy expectations, because technology is rapidly enabling the tracking and analysis of virtually every facet of previously-private information imaginable.

    • There is little question publicacy technological innovation will continue to push the privacy envelope. 
    • The open question is how users and policymakers will react over time.