The Yahoo launch of Fire Eagle may appear a harmless new addition to a growing group of interactive web applications but the consequence of a widespread take-up of the application may hold more sinister consequences, privacy experts have warned.
Fire Eagle is intended to work hand in hand with blogs and social networking applications, such as Facebook and MySpace. The application allows a user to store and manage information about their current location, which can then be posted out to applications they choose in order to keep their contacts informed of their whereabouts.
The application appears innocent at first glance. Yahoo reassures users they can purge all their location information if they choose and that no historical record will be kept. It even warns users to be careful of other applications that may build a record of their location history.
But law experts who have experienced a number of cases of web firms encroaching on their users’ privacy have voiced their concerns over the Fire Eagle application.
The main concern held by Susan Hall, a law firm Cobbetts’ ICT and media partner, is when an individual uses a phone that holds the application but the phone does not belong to them. Businesses that lend their staff mobiles are a good example. Parents that allow their children to borrow their phones is another.
“Yahoo is giving rights to the owners of gadgets as opposed to giving all Fire Eagle users the right to privacy,” Hall said.
Hall also referred to the latest UK government plans that will force phone companies, ISPs and network operators to record and store every phone call, web page request and text message, a move the government justifies by arguing it will lower crime and cut down the chance of terrorist attacks, but has been perceived by many as big brother and controversial. What will stop the government including Fire Eagle information in these latest plans, asked Hall.
Adding to this, Hall issued a reminder that legislation is often brought in for one purpose but then is quickly used for another. She pointed to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, brought in to allow police and other security agencies to carry out surveillance on serious organised crime and terrorists, but has since been used by councils to crack down on parents who try to get their children into comprehensive schools not in their catchment areas.
Alex Brown, a partner at Simmons and
Simmons law firm, was most concerned about “scope creep”, a legal term he
used to refer to web services that change over time.
“Always, the problem with companies that collect data for commercial purposes is their temptation to derive more profit from that data,” Brown said. “Yahoo obviously falls in that bracket,” he added.
Brown acknowledged the case of professional networking site LinkedIn selling its users’ data to human resource professionals. Separately, Brown pointed to the legal ruling that has made search giant Google pass on all the personal data off more than 100 million YouTube users because of the Viacom law suite.
And Yahoo may have an agenda for Fire Eagle. Introducing the application, it notes, “We realize that users might want the ability to store their location history on Fire Eagle. If there is demand for this feature we might consider adding it.”
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