Times, September 13, 2009
GOOGLE MOBILE PHONE OFFERINGS STOKE PRIVACY CONCERNS
Google's new offerings in the mobile phone arena seemed poise to increase the company's surveillance powers.
Google's answer to the iPhone, called G1, facilitates tracking users' activities on the mobile Web and sends ads to the phone as it does on the desktop. The device, sold exclusively by T-Mobile, gives Google access to your e-mail, instant messages, contact lists, Web-search history and geographic location.
The high-performance phone comes pre-loaded with familiar Google applications, allowing users to reach, with one click, some of its most popular services: Google Maps (MyLocation, satellite, traffic and Street View), Gmail (e-mail), YouTube, Google Calendar and Google Talk (IM service). It also has a touch-screen, traditional qwerty keyboard and a 3.2-megapixel camera. It also has a music player. Users can also add and subtract applications.
But as USA Today reported, once you fire up the G1, Google's radar" locks on. To use the device, customers must set up a Google account. The registration process creates a "personal identifier" - basically, a number that Google uses to store information about them, which Google does not consider to be personal information. It enables Google to field customers' search queries quickly when you're on the run. If you're using a Google service, the G1 also gives Google access to your contact lists, Instant Messages, e-mails, personal calendar, social networking and video downloading.
All the data presumably is loaded in to some form of personal file or files. Once your information has been collected and stored, there's no way to expunge it or see what's been collected. It's Google's for as long as it retains it, USA Today reported.
Google told the newspaper that it does not collect data on the non-Google services people use on the G1 - services such as Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo Mail. However, if you get e-mail updates from Facebook or other social networks sent to your Gmail account, Google would have access to those.
"It's like a walking surveillance device," said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer watchdog group.
"The Big Brother aspect of it is troubling," said Rep. Edward Markey, (D-MA) former chairman of the House Telecommunications Subcommittee, who wrote the landmark 1999 law that requires phone and cable TV companies to give consumers an "opt-in" choice for deciding whether their personal data can be used for commercial purposes. Google, Yahoo and other companies should be held to the same standard, he said.
Google and Yahoo, the two biggest players in search advertising, told USA Today their voluntary privacy policies were sufficient to protect consumers, noting that they do not collect or store information in a way that can be directly tracked to an individual.
Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel for Google, said Google tries to make privacy language as "transparent" as possible. Anne Toth, head of privacy for Yahoo, said, "Trust is a fundamental part of our business
To make policies more accessible, Google devotes a video channel to privacy at its YouTube subsidiary. The videos, just three to five minutes each, feature Google employees talking about the sorts of information that Google collects and why. Generic safeguards, such as how to manage cookies, are also discussed. Fleischer acknowledged that the average consumer is not going to read privacy policies.
Wide 'Latitude.' On Feb. 11th, Google launched "Latitude," enabling people with mobile phones and other wireless devices to automatically share their whereabouts with family and friends via Google maps. The feature expands upon a tool introduced in 2007 to allow mobile phone users to check their own location on a Google map with the press of a button. "This adds a social
flavor to Google maps and makes it more fun," Steve Lee, a Google product manager, told the Associated Press.
In an effort to head off privacy concerns, Latitude requires each user to manually turn on the tracking software and supposedly makes it easy to turn off or limit access to the service.
Google also said it will not retain any information about its users' movements. Only the last location picked up by the tracking service will be stored on Google's computers, Lee said.
The software tracks users - marked by a personal picture on Google's map - by relying on cell phone towers, global positioning systems or a Wi-Fi connection to deduce their location. The system can follow people's travels in the United States and 26 other countries. It's left up to each user to decide who can monitor their location.
To start out, Google Latitude will work on Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry and devices running on Symbian software or Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile. It will also operate on some T-Mobile phones running on Google's Android software and eventually will work on Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iTouch.
To widen the software's appeal, Google is offering a version that can be installed on personal computers as well. The PC access is designed for people who don't have a mobile phone but still may want to keep tabs on their children or someone else, Lee said. People using the PC version can also be watched if they are connected to the Internet through Wi-Fi. Google can plot a person's location within a few yards if it's using GPS, or might be off by several miles if it's relying on transmission from cell phone towers. People who don't want to be precise about their whereabouts can choose to display just the city instead of a specific neighborhood. There are no current plans to sell any advertising alongside Google's tracking service, although analysts believe knowing a person's location eventually will unleash new marketing opportunities. Google has been investing heavily in the mobile market during the past two years in an attempt to make its services more useful to people when they're away from their office or home computers.