Is Google taking too much "Latitude"?

In what seems to be a weekly occurrence, Google has announced yet another new product seemingly designed to suck what little privacy you have left out of your life.

It's called Latitude, and it uses your phone's GPS chip and/or cell tower triangulation to locate you and your friends on a map. Sounds rather Big Brotherish, don't it?

Well, it is and it isn't. More on that in a bit. First a little about what Latitude is and how it works - or, at least, how it's supposed to work.

The idea is you install Latitude on your cell phone and invite your geeky friends to do the same. Then they can see exactly where you are on a Google Map on their phone or the Web, and you can see them. Feel like hiding from the world? Tweak the privacy settings and you disappear. Or you can just X out certain friends when you're no longer feeling so friendly toward them.

Getting Latitude is pretty straightforward. You type your cell number into a field on the Google latitude page; it sends you a text message with a download link for the 1.35MB file. Install the app on your phone, click through a bunch of user agreements, and sign into your Google account (or create a new one). You can then choose which friends you want to add to Latitude; they get an email inviting them to do the same thing.

Once they accept, they can track you on a map - instantly turning them into a private eye, divorce attorney, and the NSA, all rolled up into one. Yes, I'm exagerrating.

Latitude is supposed to work on iPhones, Google Android phones, and most Windows Mobile, Blackberry, and Symbian S60 handsets. That's the plan, anyway. The reality is a little dicier.

I installed the app on my Pantech Duo Windows Mobile Phone just fine. But when I tried to add it to a T-Mobile's G1 (aka Android) phone, all I got was a "Coming soon" message. That was unexpected. Google supports Windows, but not its own OS?

Google spokesmogul Carolyn Penner says that's because T-Mobile is still rolling out updates to the G1 that will enable its version of Google Maps to use Latitude. They're doing it in stages, and they simply haven't gotten to me yet (damn them).

But that's not my only problem. For some reason, the version of Latitude installed on my Windows phone seems to think I'm in San Francisco. Had this been 1999, it would have been right. But unless Latitude is also a time machine, it's off by, oh, about 2500 miles.

Penner can't really explain why that's happening, except that maybe I get poor wireless reception in my current, non-SF location (I use AT&T, where poor wireless reception is state of the art) and it's simply defaulting to Google's own location. The trouble with that theory is that I have used other, similar services from this exact location without any problems. Maybe it will fix itself later, she suggested.

[UPDATE: Here's the deal with my phone. Per a Google spokeshuman:

Regarding your device, we don't believe that model supports Windows Mobile's cell id API, so Google Maps is unable to use Google's cell tower location service. Some older Windows Mobile models do not support this API. However, the majority of new Windows Mobile models support the API.

You can find a partial list of supported (and nonsupported) phones here. That information is on a Google Gears support page, but not anywhere on the Google Latitude page, and certainly not under "Will it work with my phone?" The ways of Google remain a mystery to everyone but Google.]

We'll see. In the meantime, I'm still as lost in the wilderness as I was before all this. But I'm not as concerned about the Big Brother aspects of this service as you might expect.

For one thing, Latitude isn't really unique. More than a year ago I tried out a similar service called Loopt, which did all of this stuff and more. Loopt even let you leave little notes for your friends; if they visited, say, a restaurant where you'd been, they could read the note you left (like "try the veal, it's fabulous").

A couple years ago Google absorbed (and just recently killed) a service called Dodgeball, which did something akin to this via text messaging. Meanwhile, Verizon's Chaperone service lets you track your kids via their cell phones for $10 a month. You can even set up perimeters that send you text alerts when, say, they leave or enter school grounds.

Personally, I plan to sign up for Chaperone or some similar service the moment my kids officially become teenagers. If my daughter says she's going to the library when she's really at the mall, I want to know about it. If she complains, I plan to take her phone away - and lock her in her room. She can sue me when she's 18. I don't care. Because in my book, her safety is more important.

But when I met with some Verizon execs a few months ago, they were pulling their hair out trying to figure out how to market this service without freaking people out. How do you explain the benefits of this service in a 30-second commercial without coming off like Big Brother? they asked.

Indeed. Some privacy advocates are calling Latitude a "danger" to personal privacy.

Of course, services like Latitude, Loopt, and Chaperone are voluntary. The controls are in your hands, not Big Bro's. And Google, at least, says it won't retain location data for more than about 24 hours. (In stark contrast to its habit of retaining your search information for nine months.) Loopt also says it doesn't maintain historical location records. (I don't know what Verizon's data retention policies are, but I plan to find out.)

That's a key point. Because privacy is all about what happens to the data - what is kept, who has access to it, how it will be used, and what you can do about all that.

Historical location data could be used for a whole range of things (see private eyes, divorce attorneys, and NSA spooks above) much to your detriment. Real-time data could be used to sell you stuff - like a nearby restaurant offering you a free coke as you stroll by. Marrying location data to your other personal information would be incredibly useful in data mining - again, to your detriment. But if the company doesn't store historical location data, that solves many of the problems right there.

Still, if you plan to let yourself be tracked, you need to be clear about how the company treats your data, and how much control you have over it. And you need to make sure you're protected if the company changes its policy or is acquired by someone else.

Because this is not a blip. Services like Latitude and Loopt are the future of mobile social networking. As more people switch to smart phones, especially with GPS built in, you can expect to see a lot more services just like them over the next couple of years.

Meanwhile, I plan to give Latitude a good test and report on anything interesting I find. And who knows, maybe I'll find you on there as well.

[UPDATE: For more on Latitude and privacy, see my followup post, "Is your cell phone spying on you?"

Dan Tynan blogs about privacy, security, and whatever comes into his pointy little head here at Culture Crash, and over there at Tynan on Tech.

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