Belfast Telegraph

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Firefox knows where you are

By Rhodri Marsden

We're getting used to gadgets knowing our location. Satnavs, of course, do little else.

It's their raison d'etre, it's why we buy them in the first place – so we can be told where the hell we are, and where the hell we're going. Mobile phones are starting to have GPS built in as standard, but even if you don't own such a cutting edge mobile device, you can still use Google Maps for Mobile to give you a rough indication of your location; signal strength from your local mobile towers is used to place you within 5km of where you're actually standing – impressive on a global scale, but not particularly useful unless you've just been booted out of the back of a van after being kidnapped, blindfolded and driven around randomly for a few hours. But the launch of Firefox's Geode service is set to bring your location data to your internet browser.

At the moment it's just a plug-in, but come the release of Firefox 3.1, it'll be woven into the fabric of the browser itself. By teaming up with Skyhook, the creators of Geode can use a database of Wi-Fi transmitters to pinpoint your location way, way quicker than a GPS ever could. If your computer connects to the internet wirelessly, it'll find you. (I just tried it, and frankly it's quite spooky – although almost thankfully it placed me three doors down from where I'm actually sitting.) If you access the internet through an ethernet cable, however, it can't find you. (I tried this initially for about 15 minutes before realising I was being stupid. What can I say, I'm writing this slightly bleary-eyed at 7.15am.)

OK, so what are the applications for Geode? As it's designed to be accessed by desktop and laptop computers rather than mobile devices, it's clearly not intended for navigational purposes. There are only a few websites currently in operation that use it: the Geode welcome page has the simplest implementation – just showing your position on a Google Map; Yahoo's FireEagle has a suite of applications which feed hungrily on location data – showing readers of your blog where you are, sharing your travel itinerary with colleagues and so on; and Food Finder is supposed to show you where you can grab tasty snacks in your vicinity, although Tooting in SW London doesn't appear to feature in their database. Ah well, i'll just get some cereal from the kitchen.

I'm back. As Mozilla, makers of Firefox and Geode, say in their introductory blog, "Geode is also the beginning of a conversation about location-based privacy and integrating services that share personal data into Web browsers." Too right it is. While it's easy to coo over the incredibly clever and undeniably impressive way you can be located via your computer, the privacy implications are huge. Currently, whenever a website requests your location from Geode, it prompts you to agree or disagree to the request – and, should you agree, your data wings its way across the globe and is stored on a server, albeit anonymously. But that's not enough for commenters on Mozilla's blog, where a good proportion are demanding that Geode remains an optional plug-in, and is never built into the Firefox browser by default.

"Call me Mr Paranoia," says one, "but isn’t this just another method to collate even more data on us? You can be sure that within a month of this becoming active someone will have made a little prog which will help you determine the exact geographical location of anyone on the web." Others, meanwhile, focus on its benefits: "Banks may be able to use this... by making sure your location matches your allowable or past access points. This provides additional reduction in risk of your identity being stolen or money being moved without your permission." But good or bad, it's another step forward for both sensory data and the intertwining of our lives with the web.

Belfast Telegraph