Privacy conscious individuals have won another fight against Google’s fight to continually erode the boundaries of personal information privacy. In response to the European Union’s demands for the protection of individual privacy, Google announced today that users would be able to opt out of location-based services.
Currently, Google uses a variety of location-tracking tools in order to provide relevant information based on a user’s current GPS coordinates. For modern smartphone users, Google can use GPS satellites, cell tower triangulation, or Wi-Fi (by tracing the signal’s external IP) to pinpoint a user’s location. Opting out of location-based services ensures that Google is not able to track or store information about your mobile usage, a privacy concern for many individuals.
The European Union has been leading the way in Internet privacy and data security for years now. Due to the Nazi use of personal information to persecute individuals during World War II, Europe strongly protects the personal nature of this identifying information and requires that governments and corporations respect an individual’s desire to opt out of tracking. The Data Protection Directive, focused on securing an individual’s right to privacy of their personal data, is the most restrictive personal information privacy legislation in the world. When Google decided to use location-based data without allowing users to opt out, Europeans were justifiably outraged.
This new policy will not affect most users, since most individuals will prefer the increased accessibility that location-targeted data provides. Various Android and iPhone mobile apps, websites, and services, including Google’s new acquisition Zagat, use location targeting to determine what is in your vicinity in order to offer recommendations that are relevant. By opting out of the location-based tracking data, users will limit the effectiveness of these applications. It’s likely that most users will work around the lack of location-based targeting the old fashioned way, by entering a zip code and navigating to their position manually.
Good Choice For Google?
The choice to opt out was not an easy one for Google, especially as they push to increase the influence of local mobile searching. Google strongly believes that returning relevant mobile results will secure its place as a search leader for years to come as mobile Internet use continues to grow. The opt-out will also negatively impact the overall viability of numerous recent acquisitions targeting local commercial search results, including three acquisitions, Zagat, Sparkbuy, and Dealmap, in 2011 alone.
According to a Google press release, an access point owner, or the person who is hosting the Wi-Fi connection, will also be able to automatically opt-out all users who connect to the Wi-Fi, but it is unclear whether or not this is an accurate description of the final mechanism.
The opt-out mechanism will not be in place until later this autumn, Google says, but it will be released globally, not just in the European Union. This is a step forward for privacy in the United States, which is lacking in legislative protections for individuals. The most recent comprehensive privacy legislation was passed in 1986, and like any computer from that era, it is terribly outdated.
The PATRIOT Act eroded many of the information privacies that individuals were assumed to have in order to stop terrorism. For this reason, it is up to private sector companies like Google to create mechanisms to protect personal information by instituting opt-out, do-not-track, and methods to permanently remove all personal information from their databases. So when European committees on data privacy offer the required nudge to convince Google and other corporations to reform their data collection initiatives, Americans owe them a thank you.