Facebook Case Sets Up Google Latitude as Tempting Legal Tool

The exoneration of a Brooklyn teenager with the help of a timely Facebook status update has sparked interest in social networking tools as evidence for law enforcement officials and litigators. This could heighten interest in Google Latitude Location History, an opt-in feature that lets users store where they've been. Yet the fact that Google is now storing location history has privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation concerned about what sort of protection Google will offer Latitude users in the case of legal compliance.

News Analysis: Defense attorneys everywhere are high-fiving in the wake of a Brooklyn teenager's acquittal over robbery charges when it was learned the teen had posted a status update on Facebook from his home computer during the crime.

And with that, proponents of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are reveling in that revelation: Social networking can set you free!

Not only does Facebook help users connect and share information with each other, but it also frees them from jail. It's also put people there; see the case where a perpetrator used Facebook on the computer of a home he burglarized and forgot to log out. Oops.

That got eWEEK thinking about a new feature Google just turned on for its Google Latitude social networking service.

Google Latitude uses cell phone tower triangulation to let users see where their Latitude friends are on Google Maps from their mobile phones, or via an iGoogle gadget from their desktop. Users must opt in to use the service and share their location. Users can control what friends see where they are.

Latitude got a lot more interesting when Google Nov. 11 added a Location History feature. As you might expect, Location History logs where Latitude users have been at any point in time. Users must opt in to use this service, and may delete some or all of their location history at any time.

Latitude Location History could be incredibly tempting and powerful for law enforcement agencies to leverage to make their cases versus alleged perpetrators. Similarly, litigators would find this location history useful. Considering the recent Facebook robbery alibi, Latitude could be as liberating as it is damaging.

The fact that Google is now storing location history has privacy advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation concerned. The EFF already has a history with location-based services such as Loopt and Latitude; in March the group cajoled Google into requiring law enforcement officials to produce a legal warrant before sharing any Latitude data. All was right with the world.

The emergence of Latitude Location History has the EFF in a new snit. Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney for the EFF, who originally harangued Google over Latitude, was not happy about the feature, noting that Location History for Latitude creates a whole new set of privacy risks because that history may be vulnerable to demands by the government or civil litigants.