Of course, less fanciful explanations are more probable: The Google engineers are just having fun exploring what can be done with GPS and social-networking tools, or eventually location-based advertising is likely to be a powerful current in Google’s revenue stream. The question is just how creepy users will find Google’s heightened fascination with where they are.
Sent From: Well, Sort of
Google’s newest offering is a Google Labs feature that can append your current location to outgoing e-mails as part of the signature block. Once the feature is enabled in Gmail settings, a new check box will appear underneath your signature block: “Append your location to the signature.”
If the box is checked, Google will look up the geographic information associated with the Internet service provider that you’re using and use that information. Of course, that’s not necessarily the most accurate about your location; it’s not uncommon for an ISP to be located far from the customers its serves. For instance, when I access my Web site through my Vermont ISP, the log records hits from North Dakota; presumably, that same false location information would be added to my e-mails.
Google says users of its browser add-on Google Gears will get more accurate results, since Gears can tap into data from Wi-Fi access points for better location data.
Too Much Data?
The new e-mail location feature follows close on the heels of Google’s introduction of Latitude, a software tool that uses cell phone GPS to show Google users where their friends are in real time. Some privacy advocates, particularly at Privacy International, have criticized Google for linking user identities with GPS data.
Not everyone is critical, however. Lauren Weinstein, cofounder of People for Internet Responsibility and an active privacy blogger, argues that Google is showing steady progress on the privacy front.
“It’s pretty clear that for Google, the more personalized they can make the search results, the better the product will be,” Weinstein conceded. “More relevant ads generate more revenue, particularly in the space; there’s real value in knowing where someone is standing at that moment, and what product they might be most interested in.”
“At the same time, however, I don’t really see Latitude or the e-mail feature as a big privacy problem,” he said. “They’re completely opt-in, and Google is showing strong improvements in the amount of time that they hold data. I’m pleased with their overall trajectory on this issue.”
Weinstein said he is much more concerned about the possibility of outside parties trying to get access to Google’s data, particularly during criminal proceedings or national investigations.