Commentary

Google's Geolocation Tools Useful When Real-Life Needs Trump Privacy

Goole Geolocation/Chile Earthquake

Some privacy advocates have voiced concerns (rightfully so) about developing tools and technologies that pinpoint the whereabouts of people who use them. Most technology provides benefits as well as problems, depending on how it's used.

For example, Google launched applications during the weekend to help people post or find information about loved ones and friends affected by Saturday's 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile. The site offers links to Google Person Finder, maps and real-time updates on Facebook and Twitter about the earthquake.

Google Person Finder lets users leave information or search for Chileans by name. The application works in English and Spanish. People can view any data input into the system. Developers can embed this Apache 2.0 license application in any Web site. Since the launch, the site as of Monday morning had tracked about 38,100 records.

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Accompanying the Person Finder application, Google also introduced a map that lists recent seismic activity in Chile, and also points to resources where people can donate money to relief and recovery effects.

I've been through more than my share of earthquakes living in California most of my life, but never experienced anything bigger than about a 6.5. The tool would provide a valuable asset in the event we experience an earthquake of that magnitude in southern California.

Then there's the dark side of revealing one's physical location. A new report analyzes online location privacy and the dark side of revealing your physical location.

Take Google Street View, for example, as a look into real-life needs that some may consider the darker side. In a blog post the Mountain View, Calif., search engine tells us it began integrating user photos into Street View last year. People can submit pictures from Picasa, Panoramio and Flickr that show a variety of views, along with time of day. An icon on the page lets you know this is a user-submitted image.

This type of information can help people who travel to unfamiliar cities, and, along with the Chile scenario, highlight the need for instant and updated information. Google isn't the only search engine company to offer this type of geographic view based on location. Microsoft integrated Photosynth into Bing Maps. An announcement in December previewed the technology. Enhancements in Microsoft's Silverlight 3 technology allowed the company to take advantage of the 3D in the platform to immerse people within the site.

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