Track friends and employee movements on your smart phone with Google Latitude

Need to know in real time which service truck is closest to a customer’s location? Want to know whether your daughter really is at the library or how your friend is progressing on a trip through Napa Valley?

Google Inc. just made it a bit easier to get that information. The company today unveiled an upgrade to Google Maps that allows people to track the exact location of friends or family through their mobile devices.

Google Latitude not only shows the location of friends, but it can also be used to contact them via SMS, Google Talk or Gmail, said Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering with Google’s mobile team, in a blog post.

A beta version of Google Latitude was released more than a year ago.

“Now you can do things like see if your spouse is stuck in traffic on the way home from work, notice that a buddy is in town for the weekend or take comfort in knowing that a loved one’s flight landed safely, despite bad weather,” wrote Gundotra. “It’s a fun way to feel close to the people you care about.”

Scott Ellison, vice president of mobile and wireless at IDC, said such GPS technology has been available from other vendors for some time, Google’s entry into the business prompts a lot of buzz.

Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group, said the Google tool is interesting even if there are obvious potential privacy issues when people know your every move.

“Latitude puts a powerful tool in users’ hands. Parents can easily track their children. People can follow their friends’ travels,” said Olds.

“Businesses can watch employee movements across the world or inside a particular facility. It will allow them to quickly dispatch, for example, the closest service person to a customer location. With Latitude, it can be done without taking the time to call service people to find out if the workers actually are where they think they are. The company will automatically know.”

But Olds also noted that people need to think through who can access such personal information.

“Users need to understand how to do it and why they probably don’t want to constantly broadcast their locations to the world at large,” he added.

Google explained in an online statement that users can opt into the GPS feature or allow only specific friends or family members to follow their travels.

Once an agreement is reached, users will be able to see their friends’ profile pictures appear on a map through their mobile device or desktop computer.

The company was quick to point out that the tool isn’t for everyone all the time.

“Fun aside, we recognize the sensitivity of location data, so we’ve built fine-grained privacy controls right into the application,” said Gundotra.

“Since you may not want to share the same information with everyone, Latitude lets you change the settings on a friend-by-friend basis. So for each person, you can choose to share your best available location or your city-level location, or you can hide.”

He also pointed out that the application will let users lie about their location at any time. “For instance, let’s say you are in Rome,” Gundotra added. “Instead of having your approximate location detected and shared automatically, you can manually set your location for elsewhere — perhaps a visit to Niagara Falls.”

That feature alone could make Google Latitude the tool of choice for workers pretending they’re actually out headed to a job site, as well as for wayward spouses, Olds noted.

“I was really looking for a way to become more connected and to allow people to know exactly where I am at every minute of the day. Thank God Google is making my paranoid dreams come true,” said Olds, sarcastically.

“Hey, some people will see this as inherently evil technology. It’s like Big Brother with a search engine. What about the employer who makes it a condition of employment that employees allow themselves to be tracked?”

After Google unveiled Latitude on Wednesday, it took PCWorld.com contributing editor, JR Raphael minutes to determine it’s one service he won’t be using.

Below he explains why.

Three reasons not to use Latitude

Google Latitude, if you haven’t heard, lets you have your location monitored and shared in real time with your friends, family, or whomever you choose. Once you sign up, GPS satellites and cell towers watch your whereabouts. They pull location data from your laptop or smartphone, then pinpoint you on a pretty little Google Map as you go about your day.

While Google Latitude isn’t the first mobile location tracking service to hit the market, it may be the first with the potential for mainstream and widespread adoption. Here are three reasons why I won’t be hopping on the bandwagon.

1.  It’s just a little too friendly.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t want every aspect of my life to be public domain — even when it comes to my close friends and family. I may be in the minority within the open book, share-it-all sentiment of the Web 2.0 world, but there’s something nice about not having everyone knowing what I’m doing every minute of my day.

If I run out for a quick cup of coffee, I may not want my buddy to see that I’m right around the corner from his house. If I tell someone I can’t make it to dinner because I’m visiting a friend in the hospital, I don’t want him to know that I’m really sitting at home eating biscuits.

The same goes for significant others – do you want your honey having a honing device on you 24/7? (Not that you’d be doing anything you don’t want her to know about, of course.)

Now, Google Latitude does let you limit how specific of a location any given person can see. Let’s face it, though: If you make the effort to get into a location-sharing relationship with someone, odds are you’re both going to reveal more than just your current city. And if you suddenly disappear from the map or switch over to showing limited info, it’s going to look a little strange.

Latitude also gives you the option of “faking” your location by manually setting it for anywhere you want. The last thing I need, though, is one more pain in the pants thing like that on my plate.

Do I really want to be thinking non-stop about whether I should “mask” my location and create a high-tech white lie for any given movement of my day? Why not just avoid the hassle and not open that door to begin with?

2. Google already has enough dirt on me.

We’ve heard for years about how much Google knows about us. From cookies to calendars and crazy search queries, the G-gods probably know more about me than my own mother does. The last thing I need is Google also knowing where I am every second.

To be fair, Google is taking a lot of privacy precautions with Latitude. Reps promise only your most recent location is stored on Google’s servers. Still, you know the data is there, and there’s no telling how it could be used in the future.

Whether it’s the idea of targeted advertising or just the intangible creepy feeling I get knowing that someone could be watching me, I’ll politely walk away from the opportunity.

3. Who knows who could end up getting the data?

Right now, the location data from Latitude stops at Google’s servers. But who’s to say what agency might demand it at some point down the line?

Think back to Google’s battle with the government a few years ago. Officials wanted Google to turn over the text of all terms typed into its search site for a specific time period as part of a child pornography investigation. Google fought the order, but other search engines — specifically, those run by AOL, MSN, and Yahoo — didn’t resist quite so much.

Then there was the time AOL accidentally posted three months’ worth of search histories. People were able to actually identify specific users and see their searches, even contact them based on the information.

We don’t anticipate any of that happening with the Latitude location data right now. But no one anticipated those instances happening back then, either. I’d rather not take the chance when it comes to something as sensitive as my every step. You just don’t know who might get their hands on the data in the future, whether by subpoena or by accident.

So there you have it — the three reasons I won’t be using Google Latitude. Maybe I’m overly protective of my privacy, but in an era when the verses to “Every Breath You Take” can serve as a literal description of a day, you’ve gotta hang on to what little you can.

Well, time to get back to work. If you need me, I’ll be right here at my desk. That’s my story, anyway — and, thanks to the lack of location tracking technology in my life, I’m sticking to it.

Sources: Computerworld.com and PCWorld.com

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