Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Maps on your telephone that know where you are

The new MyLocation feature on Google Maps for Mobile is spooky but cool.

Google Maps is a way of finding maps of just about anywhere, online on your computer. Check out if you haven’t seen it. It provides street maps, driving directions from A to B, and it can overlay satellite photos so you can see what the area looks like from above.

Google upped the ante on that service in the middle of this year when it introduced Google Maps for Mobile – the whole thing runs on most of the fancier kinds of mobile phone. So, if you’re lost or don’t know a street you are looking for, you can whip out your phone and get a street map of Wellington, say, and search for the street you want or the one you can see.

And you can switch between the map view and a satellite picture type view – a very detailed aerial photo just like in Google Earth. This is endless fun. You can armchair travel to all kinds of places, or just look down on familiar ones.

The newly-introduced “My Location” service only works on some phones, but if it works, when you press “zero” the map moves straight to where you are now with a little blue dot indicating your current position.

Technically, this is clever. Your phone doesn’t need to have a GPS embedded in it for this to work. It measures the strengths of signals from the different cell towers you can see. It’s a process that surveyors call triangulation. And that could be massively useful – where am I? Where do I want to be? Just look at the phone!

There’s also a scary aspect. Google could potentially watch where you are whenever you turn this thing on and keep records of it. Maybe they could use it to direct advertising to you. Google is very clear that it’s not going to do that, but just the fact that it could will put some people off.

And yes, your mobile phone supplier knows all this already, but they are covered by New Zealand law and Privacy Act. That’s probably why Google has called for an international consensus on privacy. I’m not sure if they are going to get it, expecting governments to move on Internet time is optimistic in the extreme, and I think there will be some cynicism from national governments saying: why should we arrange our national laws to suit you? It’s worth watching this one play out, though.

posted by colin at 6:23 am  

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