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Online Life

Google’s new ‘Timeline’ makes location history easier to use — or abuse.

Last week Google announced “Your Timeline,” a new feature that displays the totality of a person’s movements throughout the day, in an eerily complete record easily accessed through the web or the company’s Maps application. It’s handy: It can tell you when you last visited a favorite restaurant or a given friend’s apartment. And the new interface allows users to correct the system’s mistakes, or delete whole days from the timeline display.

The data itself isn’t new: Google has collected location data from users’ phones and devices since at least 2009. But the creation and promotion of Timeline, as an easy and organized inventory of users’ past movements, raises new risks.

Timeline doesn’t just display movement history to the user, but makes the information available to anyone who can access the user’s account. Any Google user can now, by default, be “checked up on” at any time, by anyone who can see their Timeline. A physically or emotionally abusive partner can now see their victim’s every move, just by forcing the victim to log in to a phone or computer. Tracking movements also just got easier for overbearing parents, a controlling employer, an oppressive religious or cultural group, or even a stalker.

An example of the detail ‘Your Timeline’ can provide.

At the same time, making past location data so easily visible to users will remind everyone — including law enforcement and civil litigants — about the existence of this resource. With this interface, the data becomes tailor-made, human readable surveillance for anyone who can obtain it. For example, a Timeline map shown in a courtroom could heavily influence a jury if they knew and recognized the platform. And obtaining the user’s phone will likely be far easier than building a forensic map by hand.

Clearly, new ways of gathering or presenting user location data can have new benefits. But these changes can also bring new risks. A feature that is mildly interesting for most of us could be decidedly harmful to those suffering from lack of power in their lives.

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