Google Android Mapping App Allows Businesses to Track Mobile Workers

A new Android application, Google Maps Coordinate, makes some analysts wary due to concerns about employee privacy and its ability to constantly track worker locations. Also, with the app only available for Android so far, this looks like a move that gives short shrift to iOS users as Google's market war with Apple continues to escalate.

In an effort to expand its paid services to businesses, Google has unveiled a new "Google Maps Coordinate" application for Android devices that will allow businesses to track the locations of their mobile workers.

The idea, according to a Google blog post by Daniel Chu, a senior product manager, is that companies will be able to use the app to better coordinate and match up workers in the field to jobs that have to be completed to serve customers.

The new service is built on Google€™s mapping and geo-location infrastructure, which will enable it to use workers' mobile devices to report their locations wherever they are working, according to Google. It will also allow companies to customize the data that's collected and improve their dispatching of mobile workers using the system. Workers will be viewed on a Google map while out in the field.

The Google Maps Coordinate API will be able to integrate with existing systems, according to the company.

Analysts, however, say that though it could help companies better distribute their remote workers, there are also some privacy issues related to the service that could be a concern.

"There's a legal definition of privacy and then a cultural feeling about what people think constitutes privacy," said Andrew Wall, an analyst with Gartner. "The app is not the problem. The problem is how will corporations manage the information they can obtain from this app? The corporations that have good controls and that aren€™t trying to do anything sneaky, will they proactively restrict their data collection when workers aren't doing their jobs in the field?"

The problem, he said, is "that won't always happen." The app is a form of surveillance, he said, which can have positive and negative overtones. At its core, "it's a way of tracking your phone, not you personally."

That can be a good thing for workers who are in the field in potentially dangerous situations, such as census workers, social workers or constables who have to do their jobs in dangerous neighborhoods where they could become victims of crime, Wall explained.

Surveillance is a tricky thing, he said. "It can help a person [if they are in trouble], but managed poorly, it€™s a nightmare. You collect data that you shouldn€™t have collected, and then you mistreat it. That€™s exactly my first thought, that this will be abused either intentionally or not intentionally."

The result, Wall said, is that it "will damage the employee-employer relationship, even if it may be through a totally innocent or unintentional incident on the part of the corporation."

It's also ironic from a security standpoint that Google is releasing the app first for Android, a mobile operating system that is more open and less secure than Apple's iOS, Wall said. "So putting a security app of this sort on Android could be a pretty vicious two-edged sword. We have to make sure that someone can't put another app on an Android device that could use this geo-data on the phone maliciously."

Google said the service will only track user-location data when the app is running and that users will be able to turn it on or off when they are off the clock.

That's a good feature, Wall said, but it also brings up the issue of whether the default should be that workers have to turn the app on so they can be tracked, rather than having to turn the app off so they are not being tracked. "This is a big controversy in the privacy world€“should you be forced to opt in or be forced to have to opt out? Most say the default should be that you should have to turn it on to be tracked."

Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said these kinds of applications are even more worrisome because they go beyond existing geo-location systems that track vehicles, such as tractor-trailers owned by trucking companies.

"Long-haul truckers objected to GPS tracking [in the past], but this is worse because the device is tied to the location of the individual, not the vehicle," Rotenberg wrote in an email reply. "[That] is far more precise and also can be used to co-locate workers, such as when two employees are at the same location."

Yet if such services become a condition of employment to remain "visible," employees will have little choice than to comply, he wrote. "It seems odd that texting and calling is not enough to locate employees," Rotenberg said. "It's a good example of function creep for location data."

Adding an interesting twist to the announcement of the new worker-tracking service is that it won't initially be available for users of Apple devices running the very popular iOS operating system.

Asked if the initial absence of an iOS version is related to the ongoing tensions between Google and Apple in the marketplace, a Google spokesman denied a link. Google developers are hard at work on an iOS version of the app, she said, but the company chose to start with the Android version. The iOS version will be released in the future, she said.

Other mobile operating systems, such as Windows Mobile, will also be reviewed for possible inclusion in the future, she said.

In May, Apple announced that it will drop the highly popular Google Maps app from its iPhones and iOS operating system and replace it with Apple's own mapping services. That move is seen as escalating a parting of the ways of the two companies, which have been partners in many initiatives over the years.

The Apple-Google battles follow Google's development and the widespread popularity of its Android mobile phone operating system, which is in direct competition with Apple's iOS and products.

The Google spokesman said the company unveiled the new mapping service after customer requests and in response to a growing number of mobile workers around the world. A recent IDC report estimated that there "will be over 1.3 billion mobile workers by 2015 (37.2 percent of the total workforce)," according to the Google blog post, which provides a market that the company would like to pursue.

The service costs an introductory $15 fee per user per month through September, according to Google. New pricing will be announced later after that introductory period, the spokesman said.

The service will run on smartphones or tablet computers running Android 2.3, 3.0, 4.0 or later, according to Google. No advertising will be displayed on the service.