Google Gives You 'Latitude' to Track Friends, Employees via Google Maps

By Nathan Eddy  |  Posted 2009-02-04

Google Gives You 'Latitude' to Track Friends, Employees via Google Maps

How often do you find yourself wondering where your friends are and what they're up to? That is the question Google wants to ask you, and depending on the severity of your Big Brother complex, perhaps you might respond, "All the time!" Regardless of how badly the average person (or businessperson) might need to know where their friends, family or employees are, Google is giving everyone new latitude to do so.

The search engine giant announced Feb. 4 Latitude, a new feature for Google Maps on your mobile device and an iGoogle gadget on your computer. The program allows users to see the approximate location of their friends and family who have decided to share their location. In addition to providing location, Latitude also gives users the ability to get in touch directly via SMS, Google Talk or Gmail, or by updating status messages. Google claims you can even upload a new profile photo on the fly.

Shall we even dare plunge into the plethora of privacy problems a technology such as this presents? Google is already prepared with a response (and YouTube video), it seems. "Fun aside, we recognize the sensitivity of location data, so we've built fine-grained privacy controls right into the application," Vic Gundotra, vice president of engineering for Google's mobile team, wrote on the company blog. "You not only control exactly who gets to see your location, but you also decide the location that they see."

For example, Gundotra suggests a user visiting Rome might in fact have his or her Latitude location registered as Niagara Falls. "Since you may not want to share the same information with everyone, Latitude lets you change the settings on a friend-by-friend basis," he wrote. "So for each person, you can choose to share your best available location or your city-level location, or you can hide."

Latitude is currently available in 27 countries (and 42 languages), with more on the way, according to Gundotra. If you have a mobile smartphone and you get a kick out of telling your friends you're in Rome when you're actually in Canada (or to be fair, upstate New York), you can go here on your phone's Web browser to download the latest version of Google Maps for mobile with Latitude.

Latitude is currently available on BlackBerry, S60 and Windows Mobile, and will be available on Android in the next few days. Gundotra wrote that Google expects Latitude to find its way onto the iPhone through Google Mobile App "very soon."

What It Means for Businesses

Abner Germanow, director of enterprise networking for IT analyst firm IDC, said this type of application, though aimed mainly at consumers, can have "very powerful implications" for small businesses and enterprise-level firms. "Think about the ability to do fleet tracking across a set of UPS trucks, or you look at the ability for a small business to have that capability, that becomes very powerful to know where your employees are."

Germanow said this is only the first step in location-based services. The second step, he said, is having the ability to know what your employees (or globetrotting friends) are doing, and the third step is how they are going about doing it. "From an enterprise standpoint, I want to know my refrigerated truck is at the right temperature; that the beer is cold and the bread is warm," he said. "The ability to start pulling that data in can be very powerful for a business. I think something like Latitude is an interesting experiment in how you pull location data off the devices people use."

Whether or not you want Google to have all that information is an entirely different discussion, he said. "There are a variety of different privacy concerns any time you're looking at these services and what kinds of controls are around them," Germanow said. Because Latitude allows users to employ misdirection (Niagara standing in for Rome, for instance), as a small business application, the issue of employee trust arises.   

"That's part of the privacy line they have to straddle: To what degree do you give people control over their data?" he said. "Depending on how people are using it, they're either going to bolster their own reputation as being an upstanding person, or not. That's not something that is the fault of the service; it's an interesting way for Google to deal with some of the privacy implications."

Germanow said that classically, location data is a piece of information that network vendors and network service providers have and could provide in a variety of ways. They've dropped the ball, he said. "Some of that is for regulatory reasons, but it's fascinating that someone like Google hasn't made it ... faster than they have," he said. That's not to say he'd be the first one to load the application onto his or one of his family members' phones. "It might be something I would put on my kids' phone, but I would wait a bit and see if somebody hacks it or breaks into it," he said. "I wouldn't be a first adopter with something like this."

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