Fire Eagle Launched – Location Services Have Privacy Concerns

Posted by at 11:37 pm on August 12, 2008

Yahoo! announced public availability of Fire Eagle, an open platform that helps users take their location to the Web while giving them the ability to easily control how and where their location data is shared.

As a user, you can log in to Fire Eagle and update your location, just type in an address, a city or a ZIP code. Or you can authorize web, mobile or desktop applications to update your location automatically, then you can go to any service that uses Fire Eagle, like  Pownce, and connect your profile there to my Fire Eagle account with one-step authentication to share in on that network.

You can also decide how much of that information to share with your favorite services. At any time you can hide yourself, change your sharing preferences or delete any of your stored information.

“Fire Eagle is about making everything on the Internet more useful, fun or interesting by adding the element of location,” said Tom Coates, head of products at Yahoo! Brickhouse. “We’re here to help people take their location to the Web by giving them the ability to control how much detail about their location they want to share and which applications they want to share it with.”

Why Developers Should Use It

Yahoo believes Fire Eagle takes away much of the costly and complicated heavy-lifting of developing geo-aware applications. Letting developers focus on how they can use location in their services without having to build the infrastructure to work out where their users are.

Worried About Big Brother?

Fire Eagle gives users a place to store and manage information about their location. But many people have worried about such geo location technologies. While you are in control of what applications can use the information and who gets to see, Yahoo must honor court orders and law enforcement subpoenas.

Paul Sand writing for The News Tribune of Tacoma Washington has great piece titled “Narrows Bridge Tolls – Quick Fee, Long Record.”

The report is about the Good to Go automatic toll transponder system the Washington State Department of Transportation uses to for drive by toll payment.

Janet Matkin, spokeswoman for the Good to Go program, said the following in report:

The DOT will store information on each individual passing for 8 1/2 years.

Drivers can request their own toll information from the Transportation Department. Under state law, the only other people with access will be law enforcement investigators who subpoena the data and attorneys who request the data through court order.

In a letter to the editor titled Commuters’ Privacy Rights Are at Stake, Radny Boss wrote:

Personally identifying information may be released to law enforcement agencies only for toll enforcement purposes. Personally identifying information may be released to law enforcement agencies for other purposes only if the request is accompanied by a court order” (RCW 42.56.330)

WSDOT was reported in the story as saying it would release information to “attorneys who request the data through court order” and “law enforcement investigators who subpoena the data.” But both of these would be against the law. Law enforcement agencies need a court order, and attorneys have no access under the law.

At the very least geo location data appears to be a gray are under the law, which usually lags behind what technology can do.*

Programs Which Use Fire Eagle

Fire Eagle was built at Yahoo! Brickhouse in San Francisco, a home for small team projects that are run like a start-up inside Yahoo.

During its private beta, launched last March, Fire Eagle has been integrated into over fifty live applications, including Dopplr, Pownce, and Movable Type to name a few.

I have been using the service during the beta and here are a few apps I really have enjoyed using with Fire Eagle.

Brightkite, a location based social network to meet new people and see what you friend are doing.

MyLoki adds your location into your favorite social networks so you can share it with your friends. MyLoki, powered by Skyhook Wireless, automatically informs your friend of your location. This is the same company Apple turned to for its WI-FI GPS like location service used on the iPhone and iTouches

SearchQuest GPS, a free iPhone/iTouch app with location-based utilities and travel guide. If you have iTunes on your computer, here is a link to the app store location

Plazes, now part of Nokia, in some ways is competitor of Fire Eagle. I have used Plazes for years and was happy to see them play nice with each other.

*Please note we have not spoken to any attorneys about their views on geo data privacy and laws governing this information appear to be a state matter. Please seek profession legal counsel regarding your privacy rights.

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