The past couple of days have seen some brouhaha over location privacy issues. Please Rob Me brought up the potentially troubling issue of tweeting out your location updates (and Foursquare responded). But actually, Google is doing something that’s perhaps even creepier.
While their Google Location Alerts feature is not new (it started beta testing in November alongside location history), the amount it is being used seems to be increasing. And it’s freaking some users out. For example, we received two emails yesterday forwarded to us from users who have no idea why they were getting email notifications about friends’ locations. And they have every right to be confused, because they didn’t sign up to get them.
You see, Google sends you these alerts automatically if your Google Latitude contact opts in to them. Again, to be clear, you get these alerts if your contact opts in to them. As Google explains it on the site:
Alerts are sent to both nearby friends if they are sharing their location with each other, even if only one of them has enabled alerts.
Now, you may opt-out of these emails, but you have to visit the site to do that.
So what do these emails look like? Like this:
Subject: Location Alert: Peter XXXX was nearby!
Google Location Alert
Peter XXXXX (XXXXXX@gmail.com) was within 800 meters of you in San Francisco, CA at 7:15 PM. Check Google Latitude to see where Peter is now.
While I’m a firm believer in the future of location, and believe that many of the privacy issues being raised now will eventually blow over as it becomes more commonplace, these alerts seem pretty creepy to even me. Especially because they are opt-out.
And they’re actually a little weirder. As Google explains:
You received this alert because you’ve shared your location with Peter using Google Latitude, and they have chosen to send Location Alerts when Latitude friends are nearby. Location Alerts are only sent when your friend is at an unusual place during a given time of the week based on their location history, filtering out routine locations such as a daily commute. Peter also received this alert.
So you actually only get these alerts when your contact is in an “unusual place.” That makes some sense, since getting these alerts all the time would be beyond annoying. But obviously that “unusual place” may be a place Peter doesn’t want you being alerted about. Yes, he can opt-out of sharing that location, but the problem is that Latitude is always on, and most people forget (or simply don’t care) to turn it off.
Google has caused quite a stir over the past couple of weeks by making many of the features of Buzz opt-out (even auto-friending, which they had to change). Obviously, opt-out helps drive usage, but it also annoys and creeps users out. And I can’t think of a better example then a user automatically getting an email with someone’s location that they didn’t ask for.