Google Latitude – a free and fabulous tracking service if you aren’t paranoid about privacy

When I tried to invite my friends to join me on Google Latitude so I could give it a proper test run, most were too creeped out to click on the link.

Many of them couldn’t believe I would voluntarily broadcast my whereabouts, updated constantly via my BlackBerry Curve. It had the feel of “Big Brother” all over it and initial reactions were either negative or incredulous. One friend even called me after receiving my e-mail invitation, asking if it was a hoax.

Some privacy groups had similar gut reactions to Google’s newest proof it is an all-knowing entity.

Critics have warned that micro-managing bosses would begin to track their employee’s every move, or that stalkers have been given a gift, or that jealous spouses now have a new tool to spy on their significant other. But I don’t see how that can be the case.

After exploring Latitude and examining its privacy settings, I’ve concluded that it isn’t an invasive application. In fact, the privacy settings are totally within the user’s control. Latitude offers up a useful service that will change the way people socialize. It will come in handy to small businesses that now have a free tool to track employees around the world.

With Latitude, Google is offering up another incredibly useful free service that’s totally controlled by the user. It could become one of the search giant’s most popular services if people can move past the unwarranted paranoia that their movements would be tracked surreptitiously.

Privacy

You can access Latitude either from your mobile phone – compatible with most colour BlackBerrys, Windows Mobile 5.0 and up, Symbian S60 devices and soon the iPhone – or as a gadget in Google’s personalized homepage, iGoogle. Either way, the privacy options are the same.

First of all, when you share your location, you aren’t offering that information to everyone on the Web. For instance, not just anyone could type “Brian Jackson” into a Google Maps search to locate me, but only friends I invite to view my location.

Secondly, there are three options under the “Privacy” tab that a user can set at any time. You can either have your location tracked via your mobile device, which will then automatically update your location as you move. Or you have choose to set your location manually, or not share your location at all.

So not only can you retract your avatar from the map, but you could potentially lie about your location. I used this feature to pretend that I was on a tropical vacation in Tonga, and then in Hawaii. Sadly, my actual surroundings didn’t change as a result of these virtual meanderings.

Finally, you can set your location preferences differently for each of your Latitude contacts — offering each one only as much information as you want. For instance, you could let your friend know your exact location, let your mother know only what city you’re in, and hide your location from your boss altogether. Your friends have no real way to know what setting you have selected for them.

With so many options being in the user’s control, it seems that privacy is well protected. No tyrannical boss could force the application on a group of employees for tracking purposes because the employees could lie about their whereabouts all too easily. No stalker could track you, because you wouldn’t authorize them to see your location.

A couple of my friends who did feel comfortable with using Latitude voiced similar opinions.

“I can’t really explain why this doesn’t creep me out,” one friend tells me. “To be honest, I really trust Google… I think it’s pretty cool that if I saw you were in the neighbourhood, I could send you a message and see if we could have a coffee.”

The main privacy concerns are whether Google is tempted to do something insidious with your data, or whether their security is breached.

Communications

Not only can you share your location with friends using Latitude, but you can talk to them directly from the application. Google advertises this feature as working, but it proves to have some kinks.

Clicking on one of your friends in the mobile application (Google Maps for Mobile v3.0) can bring up options to send them an SMS, call them directly, or chat via GTalk.

After I added my mobile phone number to my Google profile, one of my friends was able to call me or SMS me from Latitude. But we couldn’t get the option for GTalk to pop up – despite the fact that we are GTalk friends already. It wasn’t clear to me how to get this working.

Also, I was disappointed that I couldn’t e-mail my friends directly from the application. Even though I can see their e-mails in Latitude, there’s no option to instantly start writing a message.

Accuracy

The accuracy of the service will depend on what technology you use to allow yourself be located. If you use the option where you set your own location, consider the accuracy level to be zero.

However, if you rely on your mobile device to locate you, there are three ways that Latitude attempts to do just that. Any mobile device that uses Wi-Fi, a cellular radio, or GPS can be located somewhat accurately. That’s three different signal formats that the application can use to triangulate your signal.

When Latitude turns on, it will automatically reach out to any available GPS satellite, the nearest cell tower, or the nearest Wi-Fi access point. Once it has the links (as many as 24) it can find, it works out your location. That information is sent to the server, and then shared with your friends.

On my Latitude location, it is exactly where my GPS location shows up. So it is not clear to me how the other signals are assisting with the accuracy. There are many Wi-Fi points in my office and home, and I’m obviously close to many cellular towers at all times.

While in the office, my location is about 200 meters off, to the north. That’s a problem I blame on the GPS signal being masked by the large building. Also, in an inexplicable phenomenon, my colleague’s Latitude location has him even further away from our office. This is despite the face we both have identical devices, and sit adjacent to one another in the office.

I did a driving test to see how quickly Latitude would update my location. When I was moving quickly along the highway, my location lagged behind by about one major intersection. But when I exited off the highway onto a slower-moving road, the location caught up to me.

While outside, the accuracy of the location was quite good, within meters.

Future uses

There’s a lot of good potential business uses for Google Latitude. Any small business that manages mobile workers could begin to track their employees for free and better coordinate activities based on the information.

Imagine a food delivery company, for example, that suddenly gains the ability to see the location of all their drivers. They could meet orders even more quickly by sending the most closely positioned driver. Or a logistics company that is shipping things across the continent could have another method to track their fleet.

The advertising potential for location awareness is clear. Perhaps organizations will create Google Profiles and users will add them to their friends list. Then when you’re in the right retail location, you’ll receive an SMS message listing everything on sale. Or you’ll be e-mailed a digital coupon. The possibilities are endless.

The social networking implications are also great. Anyone who gets lost often might want to install Latitude, so they can phone a friend and have them give directions out of an unfamiliar area. Or friends meeting up in a large facility will be able to find each other with ease. Parents will be able to keep a tab on their child’s whereabouts for safety reasons.

But there’s one thing Latitude won’t be very good for – spying.

With files from Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Computerworld.com

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