Google Latitude: a stalker's wet dream


— 10:35 AM on March 11, 2009

Geolocation is already one of the next big trends in mobile devices. Most premium cell phones have GPS capabilities, and those that don't can use less accurate network-based solutions to estimate their locations. In turn, location-based services are on the rise. Knowing your exact latitude and longitude in the urban jungle doesn't do a whole lot of good by itself, but it suddenly becomes useful when put into context. Travel directions, traffic conditions, and even the nearest ATM are just a few button presses away at any time, anywhere. As a daily Series 60 user, Google Maps is one of my most frequently used applications—GPS-assisted directions make finding new locations a breeze, and the real-time traffic conditions do their best to get me to Lakers games on time.

So, what happens when you take all of those location-aware mobile devices and make them social? That's exactly what Google aims to do with its new service, Latitude.

Basically, Latitude takes position data from your mobile phone and makes it visible to the world. All right, "the world" isn't entirely accurate, since you have to choose which contacts you want to share your location with. Authorized friends may then view your location within Google Maps on their mobile devices or within a Latitude iGoogle gadget on their PCs. Some mobile versions of Google Maps even have chat functions built in, so not only can you find your friends, but you can send them an IM saying you're sneaking up behind them.


Google Latitude in action on iGoogle

Latitude raises an interesting question: do people really need to know where I am at all times? I'm still not even sold on the idea of Twitter. No one wants to know what I'm up to every two hours, and I'd be a bit concerned if they did. Frankly, my life's just not that interesting. Now Google wants to add my current location to the wealth of personal information available on the Internet? The idea, according to Google, is that friends that just happen to be near you can stumble on your activity and share in the fun. But maybe I specifically didn't invite a certain friend, or maybe I'm not in the mood to hang out. I'd rather friends not drop in on me unannounced just because they're in the same area.

Thankfully, hiding your status for certain contacts, or even all contacts, is fairly straightforward. You can even spoof your location by manually selecting your position. But do I really want to manage all of that? Keeping track of which friends I have to hide from just to go about my day is not an idea I relish. I find it easier simply to turn off the service.

So, what is Google Latitude good for? How about using Latitude to let people find me only when I want them to? Honestly, I just don't see the point. In the past, my friends and I have never had problems meeting once we decide to get together. "Hey dude, meet you at Yard House in 20" has, amazingly, always worked. I've never found myself wishing for GPS-accurate position data for my friends, and I can't imagine they have, either. It might seem silly, but the first application that I thought of for Latitude was a large-scale, GPS-assisted urban game of tag. Clearly, Google Latitude isn't fulfilling a critical role in my life any time soon.

Like all things Google, Latitude also makes you wonder what Google is doing with all of that position data. Because, let's be honest: it's going to use the data for something. Whether it'll serve up location-aware advertisements or sell demographic data, Google potentially has a very large amount of valuable but also sensitive personal information on its hands. For now, Latitude's privacy policy guarantees your location data isn't available to third parties, and previously reported locations are not saved. Also, just last week, Google committed to protect position information from law enforcement agencies without a warrant. However, the concern over my personal information is just one more reason for me not to use the service.

Personally, I've found better uses for GPS in my mobile phone. Geotagging my hiking photos has proven to be a lot of fun (especially paired with iPhoto '09), and plotting my cycling routes helps manage my exercise. For now, I'll continue to use Google Maps without signing into the Latitude service. Maybe at a future trade show, the next time several of us TR writers are trying to find each other in an overwhelming environment, we'll turn to Google Latitude—but I doubt it.

Besides the S60, Google Maps is also available for Windows Mobile, Android, iPhone, and Blackberry devices. Latitude support for the iPhone is still unavailable, but that still leaves a large number of Latitude-capable devices on the market and many friends to potentially stalk. What about you? Are you already using Google Latitiude or a similar service to track your friends, or has the fear of Big Brother—or worse yet, your significant other—spying on you caused you to shy away? Hit up the comments and let us know what you think.

   
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