Is Google, Inc.'s New Phone-Tracking Feature a Big Mistake?

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Is Google a light in the online wilderness, or a menace all its own? You decide. Image source: Google.

This week, Google introduced a new feature to the mobile versions of Google Maps. Happens all the time, right? But this time, Google walks a fine line between "useful" and "creepy." The best part? Freaking about about the privacy implications of this feature makes no sense -- because it's not really new at all.

Let me explain.

The good
The new Google Maps tool, dubbed "Your Timeline," is designed to help you "remember and view the places you've been on a given day, month, or year." Digging into your saved location history, you can now get a visual map of your location at any given time, complete with a step-by-step route breakdown. Here's what that looks like on your Android device:

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Image source: Google Maps.

The timeline comes with privacy controls. It's visible only to you and can be disabled with the flick of a centralized settings slider. Or you can dive into your phone's settings and stop this data collection in two different ways: Turn off the GPS system (and related tracking technologies) altogether, or stop your phone from reporting the data to Google's central data warehouses. All three of these options will stop the timeline from collecting new location data.

And if the silly thing already knows too much about you, you can delete any data point you like or erase the entire mapping history. Just remember to stop the collection of new data as well, or you'll start building a brand-new map anyhow.

"We hope you find Your Timeline a valuable and helpful tool as you explore the world around you," said Google Maps product manager Gerard Sanz in the Timeline announcement.

Indeed, many people will find this tool useful, or at least mildly interesting. Where did I go in October 2013? Mostly work, home, and the commute in between. Plus that conference in Vegas, of course. Maybe that should be erased. What happens in Vegas, right?

That's a pleasant reminder of days gone by, and the map for an entire month or year can put your travel habits into perspective. Me, I should probably get out more. You might reach the same conclusion -- or the exact opposite. Either way, I find it fun to analyze the hard-numbers data of my own life. And if I really do forget the details of some distant jaunt or odyssey, and need that information later, this could actually be a useful tool.

The bad
That's the positive view, of course. You'll find plenty of people taking the opposite position.

The headlines surrounding this announcement tell a sordid tale:

  • "Google Maps Timeline Lets You Stalk Yourself," said Gizmodo.
  • "Google Maps 'Your Timeline' is a creepy reminder that you are being tracked," according to BetaNews.
  • "Google updates Maps with terrifying My Timeline feature," said British comparison shopping center Recombu.

The list goes on, but I think you get the point by now. Location tracking features can be "creepy" or downright "terrifying" if you care deeply about your privacy.

There are many reasons to go down that dark path. If the Timeline information gets into the wrong hands, villains and stalkers could wreak untold havoc on your personal life. With a clear picture of where you're likely to be at, say, Wednesdays at 7 p.m., it could be an open invitation to burglars.

On the flip side of that particular coin, actual criminals certainly don't want proof of their potentially illegal whereabouts at all times. A subpoena here, a warrant there, and who knows what law-enforcement agencies might get their hands on that critical evidence?

Oh, and those are just the most obvious examples of bad things that could happen when your location history is known in great detail. Some companies might try to sell you stuff based on where you are -- or where you've been. And what might happen if Google turned overtly evil, with easy access to this kind of information about pretty much everybody? Stopping just short of that doomsday scenario, hackers could breach Google's data security and use it for nefarious purposes.

Shouldn't we all worry about these plutonium sticks of privacy invasion bouncing around in our pockets and purses? It could go wrong in so many ways. Why not disable the location tracking altogether? (Some don't even trust that step -- what if Google, the NSA, or Anonymous are reporting data in secret no matter what you do?)

And most definitely, from this point of view, Google Maps should kill the Timeline feature ASAP. It's simply too dangerous.

The real world
Here's the kicker, though. What's new about the Timeline is how Google Maps presents this information in an easily digested format. You've probably been reporting those location-tracking nuggets for years already. There's even been a reasonably simple way to track that data since 2011.

That's when Google released a personal dashboard for its Latitude service. Along with a browser-based mapping tool, you could grab all the data that the Timeline now puts in easy reach from your phone. That's really the only news here: Google has polished and refined its mapping tools a bit and made the whole package easier to use on the go.

The polish extends to the browser version, too. If you go to the old Location History Browser, you'll find yourself swiftly redirected to -- you guessed it -- the Timeline page. It's all very modern, and much simpler to use than the retired version. Now you can delete individual stops along your Google-mapped route, rather than just dumping entire days at once. But it's still the same tool at heart, and it's been around for years.

Timeline in action. Image source: author.

What's next?
Look, I get it. Having Google (or anyone else) snooping on your whereabouts can be unsettling. People might learn things about you that they have no business knowing. And yes, Google aims to make money from it, mostly by letting advertisers target their ads to very specific audiences, in just the right place at the right time. That's valuable for the company, and perhaps an inconvenience to you.

But the only realistic danger in detailed location data is, you might get caught doing something you shouldn't. And in most cases, getting that data would involve either sophisticated hacking or serious legal processes. If you don't trust Google with your data, I suppose you'll never be comfortable with cloud computing at all. The company has a history of fighting back against data sharing, whether the data request was done by government request, legal papers, or plain old hacking.

Call me naive (and I know that some of you will do exactly that), but I'm convinced that Google won't use my detailed location records for evil. They form the basis for useful and interesting features like Google Now event scheduling cards and -- yep -- Timeline. They'll also help Google make money by boosting the value of my eyeballs when it comes to selling ads, and I can live with that.

But selling my personal data to the highest bidder? Government mind control? Building stepping stones toward identity theft? Please.

Google depends on nurturing user trust, or its entire business model would collapse. Follow the money if you want to see where the world is going -- and Google's cash tracks lead in the exact opposite direction away from such shenanigans. Too much to lose, not much to gain.

Oh, and did you catch the part where Timeline helps you cover your tracks by erasing whatever location data you want? That's now done on a very granular level -- and from the comfort of your own smartphone.

So yeah, I'll check up on my Google Maps Timeline from time to time, walking back down memory lane or just shaking my head over how little I really travel. The only real danger here would be if I lose my handset to some twisted villain -- but location records would be the least of my worries at that point.

Privacy fanatics have already flipped out over this not-so-new tool, but that furor will die down soon enough. All that's left is another handy-dandy data management tool, and Google won't have lost a nickel in the long run.

The article Is Google, Inc.'s New Phone-Tracking Feature a Big Mistake? originally appeared on Fool.com.

Anders Bylund owns shares of Google (A shares). The Motley Fool recommends Google (A and C shares). The Motley Fool also owns shares of Google (A and C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.