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2/26/2010
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Google Adds 'Nearby' Search Option

Mobile location-based search capabilities are now available to desktop computer users.

Amid growing concern about the privacy implications of location-based services, Google on Friday introduced a way to filter search results based on the user's location.

"Starting today, we've added the ability to refine your searches with the 'Nearby' tool in the Search Options panel," explained Google product manager Jackie Bavaro in a blog post. "One of the really helpful things about this tool is that it works geographically -- not just with keywords -- so you don't have to worry about adding 'Minneapolis' to your query and missing Web pages that only say 'St. Paul' or 'Twin Cities.'"

Google's addition of a location awareness option in searches from desktop computers follows the company's introduction of a similar service for mobile devices in January.

Google users can try location-aware searches by entering a search query, clicking on the "Show options" disclosure button just below the search box, and selecting "Nearby."

Users can supply their own location or a different one.

On Wednesday, the Center for Democracy and Technology's general counsel John Morris testified at a Congressional hearing on "The Collection and Use of Location Information for Commercial Purposes" about the need to extend privacy protections to location data and related services.

Acknowledging that location-based services have real benefits, like saving money for individuals, companies, and organizations -- Washington D.C. for example, saved about $3 million in a year by using a customized version of Google Earth to track fire trucks and related assets -- Morris also expressed concern that the easy availability of location data could easily lead to abuse.

Location-based data, said Morris, "can reveal visits to potentially sensitive destinations, like medical clinics, courts, political rallies, and union meetings. The ubiquity of location information has also increased the risks of stalking and domestic violence as perpetrators are able to use (or abuse) location-based services to gain access to location information about their victims."

The CDT argues that location-based services should be exclusively opt-in and that standards for law enforcement use of location data should be clarified.

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