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Could Google Latitude Run Into Legal Trouble?

CRN Staff

The search giant, which released Google Latitude Wednesday, calls the Google Maps add-on "a fun way to feel close to the people you care about." What's more, it's completely voluntary, according to the company -- your location can only be viewed if you've decided to share where you are, and it's even possible to transmit a different location than the one where you are currently.

Still, we couldn't help but sympathize with some of Dan Olds' concerns, as related to Computerworld's Sharon Gaudin. Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, addresses one fairly natural use of Google Latitude's global positioning prowess -- tracking employees' movements, "across the world or inside a particular facility."

"What about the employer who makes it a condition of employment that employees allow themselves to be tracked?" he wonders.

Of course, some companies already track employees in a similar manner -- package delivery services, for example. But those companies are actually tracking company property like delivery trucks rather than individuals. The legality of forcing such Big Brother oversight on, say, cubicle workers, seems dubious at best.

But maybe not.

Companies might be able to force Google Latitude-type tabs-keeping upon employees, but it would matter what sort of GPS tracking devices were used, said one legal professional who spoke to Channelweb.com.

A company-owned laptop or smartphone might be fair game, but a GPS-enabled device owned by the employee probably wouldn't, said the source, who asked not to be named. What's more, a device that's purpose-built for GPS tracking alone could be in a different category than a general-purpose computer or telephone that happens to have GPS functionality.

After all, the government has to get court warrants to conduct electronic surveillance of individuals and court orders to fit them with GPS tracking devices. Could a private company simply order an employee to submit to the same kind of tracking? Maybe not in a stand-alone device, so wrapping GPS into more general-purpose devices that companies could conceivably order employees to carry might be less legally dubious, the source said.

Meanwhile, Google does promise Latitude users the ability to opt out and choose who sees their location -- which leads Olds to turn the tables on the "employer-as-Big-Brother" fear, noting that employees could conceivably use the application to trick their bosses into thinking they're somewhere that they're not.

True, but what happens if a company issues devices to employees with Google Latitude or some other tracking service locked on so the employee couldn't change the settings?

That's where it gets dicey, according to the legal source, who remained skeptical about employees gaining much court protection against such practices. "The current courts pretty much side with the employers across the board in cases like this," he said.

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