Don't look now, but Google is following you
Location tracking tools are everywhere -- like in Google's Chrome 5 browser. But not all of them can be trusted.
This location tracking stuff has gotten seriously out of hand. You don't even have to leave your house; just sitting at your computer, somebody somewhere really wants to know exactly where you are.
It could be Twitter, Facebook, your iPhone, one of those so-painfully-hip-they-make-me-want-to-puke location-based services like Gowalla or FourSquare, Google, or any one of dozens of other services all dying to know where you are 24/7.
[ See also: Why location privacy is important ]
For example, after logging onto Google the other day, the following message popped up in a green bar running across the top of my iGoogle home page:
"http://lfkq9vbe9u4sg98ip8rfvfOOl7atcn3d.ig.ig.gmodules.com/ wants to track your physical location"
WTF? The "learn more" link next to this mystery URL was no help whatsoever. It brings up this generic explanation about location tracking.
It turns out this is a newly activated function of Google Chrome 5 (the browser I was using) and that ridiculous URL is the home page for iGoogle. In fact, the app in question was probably Google Latitude, which I've got installed on iGoogle. Why not just say that? Well, the answer is more interesting than you might imagine.
I found the following Web page on the Google Chrome support forums, where other users had a similar head-scratching experience. Like me, they were wondering why this strange URL was requesting their location information and why, if the app in question was Google Latitude, it didn't just say that. Like the way Google Maps will identify itself when you click the white circle on the map directly above the little man.
A response from "Google Employee" and "Top Contributor" gwilson was quite illuminating:
"iGoogle gadgets can change / spoof their titles, or even make misleading ones. Someone could write a bad gadget and title it "Good Gadget" or "Gmail" or something else that you trust to try to trick you into revealing your location. The gadget could even re-write its title very quickly to pretend to be a different gadget on your iGoogle page.
Gadgets & sites in general cannot spoof their URL. So you always know that when you see that message bar, the URL that shows there is really the URL of the site/gadget asking for your location."
So if I am reading that response correctly, it means gadgets showing up your iGoogle home page cannot be trusted. If they can be spoofed, presumably they can also be used to capture your personal information -- your Google log-ons, Gmail, Google Calendar, and of course, your physical location. A perfect one-stop tool for stalkers, spearphishers, and cat burglars. Nice.
I don't know who gwilson is. I don't even know for sure he's a Google employee. He's not an official spokesperson and, of course, he could be dead wrong. But reading that little bit of info he casually tossed off certainly put a chill in my day.
So now I'm given a choice between an incomprehensible URL I don't trust or the name of a Google gadget I now no longer trust. I think the only reasonable answer for the time being is to say no, thank you, I don't want you to track my location.
You of course might feel differently. But before you blithely just say yes, I urge you to ask: What exactly is in it for me? I know what benefits location tracking can bring to service providers (and their advertisers), but what benefits does location tracking bring to me? If you don't have a good answer to that one, I'd strongly suggest you decline.