Google Eyeing Location-Based Mashups, but Says Privacy Is Paramount

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-08

Google sees value in using location-based services such as Google Latitude and Google Buzz  to provide recommendations by connecting to disparate Web services.

But the search engine believes it's just as important to mitigate the potential privacy scares associated with such services.

eWEEK described to Steve Lee, product manager for Google Maps for mobile and Google Latitude, how a location-based mashup might work:

"Chris and Roger are friends and both users of location-based services, such as Google Latitude or Google Buzz for mobile. Chris searches Yelp reviews for Shutter Island, suggesting he might be interested in the film. Chris' friend Roger buys tickets from Fandango to see Shutter Island. Google Latitude or Buzz are notified behind the scenes about these Yelp and Fandango actions and calculate that Chris and Roger are friends. When Roger pulls into the theater parking lot, Chris gets an alert from Latitude or Buzz saying Roger has pulled into the lot to see Shutter Island and suggests he either meet him there or call him to see if he can join him."

This sort of location-based aggregation can help move applications such as Google LatitudeGoogle buzz for mobile and services from startups such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Brightkite and Loopt from the fringe to the mainstream.

Lee called such location mashup scenarios very compelling, noting, "I think it's something that Google would love to offer users. What's important in scenarios where users are looking for information between different sources is that you're transparent for end users."

There would have to be a mutual understanding between the friend providing the recommendation from an app and the recipient of the recommendation for this to work.

"You also have to mitigate the creepy factor. A lot of services like that are part amazing and compelling and part creepy. If you are very up front and transparent then the user understands how that info was derived and it removes most of the creepiness. Then you have to decide to make it opt-in or opt-out, you have to give the user a choice to be able to say 'No, I don't want to be part of this.' You have to have very specific controls to mitigate the creepy factor."

Yes, folks, Google thinks very seriously about user privacy despite what privacy watchdogs allege. Google tests its own software long before it releases it to mitigate any creepy factor.

For example, Google only launched Location History for its Latitude friend-finding app last November, but Lee has been using Location History since the Latitude app launched in February 2009.

Lee described his reaction:

"When we visualized [Location History] on a Google Map and Google earth, my initial reaction was this was amazingly cool and had amazing possibilities. But it was definitely also creepy. It's good to have a mixture of the two [amazing and creepy] because it drives our decisions and our policies around giving users choice of how this info is shared."

With that in mind, Lee and his teamdeveloped Latitude's Location History and Location Alerts with a second opt-in so that users had to explicitly choose to share location data. Moreover, users can export their Location History as a KML file and delete all of this data with one click, or select specific date ranges or specific points for deletion.

This is sort of thing that should allay fears from privacy watchdogs such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is already concerned about the potential abuse of consumer privacy by location-based services such as Google Latitude, whose Location Alerts and Location History features provide a treasure trove of information on users; whereabouts.

That isn't going to stop Google from moving the ball forward for location-based apps.

Noting that Latitude and Google Buzz for mobile help users "meet up," Lee said Google will continue to invest time and resources into surfacing "richer content information about a place, and to let friends and users tell people about that place."

For Google, that is where the true intersection between location and social networking lies. Whether that is instantiated in location-based mashups involving e-commerce transactions or not remains to be seen.

Rocket Fuel