Employers: Could Google Latitude Get You Sued?

Forgetting, for a moment, the understandable business interest in the new Google Latitude geo-location service, which can be used with a smartphone to track employees' whereabouts, let me direct your attention to those serious-looking men and women in the serious-looking dark suits.

Since we can neither live without them nor kill them all, let's gather 'round the great big conference table and bring on the lawyers. Waybe if we don't let them sit down this will be a mercifully short visit.

OK, only one lawyer. And a nice one, too. Oh, I hate it when the lawyers are nice. So, guiding us through this potential legal tangle is attorney Sheryl Willert of the Seattle law firm of Williams Kastner.

Ms. Willert represents her 22,000 fellow members of DRI, an international organization of business defense attorneys.

Can employers legally use Google Latitude to track employees?

Willert: I believe that private sector employers are free to use this tool for employment purposes in the same manner that they currently use Facebook and MySpace. There may be restrictions on public employers because of state action and the 4th Amendment. There may also be restrictions on unionized employers depending on the nature and content of their contracts with employees.

Will Latitude cause more lawsuits to be filed?

Willert: Whether this tool will lead to an increase in employment litigation is speculation. Any tool used inappropriately can do that. Therefore, if employers are going to use Latitude, they should use it for non-discriminatory/business related purposes only.

Are employers entitled to know the whereabouts of their employees?

Willert: Currently, many employers use GPS to track employees during working hours to determine whether their employees are actually performing their jobs or whether they are abusing their system. A prime example is the trucking industry. Although this tool may facilitate more widespread use of tracking data, it is, again, not necessarily a violation of the law or an invasion of privacy, depending on the nature of employment.

What should employees be told about Latitude?

Willert: If employers are going to commence such tracking, it is imperative that they provide notice to employees because notice will have the effect of deterring litigation even though it may not eliminate the possibility.

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Willert's cautionary advice is probably worth heeding, lest using this free service at your company turn into an unexpectedly costly decision.

Though I'm not a lawyer, I am happy to offer one piece of business advice that will help keep your workers happy: It would be extremely tacky for an employer to expect an employee to use their own phone to provide tracking data back to the employer. If the boss wants the information, the boss should pay for the phone.

David Coursey, who has spent more than 25 years writing about technology, always gives wide berth to anyone who can effectively represent him or herself in court for free. Write him: david@coursey.com.

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