Google this morning released a location-sharing feature called Latitude for its mobile phones Maps application. It allows friends to keep track of each other in real time, adding a social layer to the directions, traffic, and business listings currently found on the service.
Despite Google's best efforts, privacy concerns have come to the forefront of the discussion of this app. The company devoted a long paragraph in its introductory blog post and put together a video outlining Latitude's safeguards, but one commenter on the productivity blog Lifehacker summed up the anxiety pretty well:
So, Google tracks what you read in Gmail, has your phone number and your day's schedule for their Google Calendar, saves what you type in Gchat and the places you've been in Google Maps... now they want us to tie where we live into all of that personal information? Ummm.... does that bother anyone else?
Those who do opt in can do so very selectively with individual people; one can hide at any time from selected contacts or the entire network. One can also expose location at the city level or extremely precisely (using triangulation/GPS). Users can also sign out when they simply don’t want to be located.
Location can also be set manually. I can thus appear to be in Paris, France when I’m really in Southern California. Steve Lee told me this was one of the surprises from the testing Google did with early users. Many people placed themselves “aspirationally” in different locations (e.g., I’d rather be in Hawaii) than where they actually were.
But this doesn't really address the Big Brother fears. You can hide from certain friends, but Google still knows where you are. And, while omnipresent, the Internet giant isn't infallible. Earlier this week, a software glitch caused Google to label every search result as "malware," prompting many to ponder the troubling implications of a "Google monoculture."
Ready to dip your toe into location sharing – perhaps, as Google suggests, to let family know you've landed automatically after a flight? Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android, and S60 users can head to google.com/latitude to download the updated application. Desktop users can set up a version of the service through the customizable startpage service iGoogle. And, Google says it expects functionality for iPhone to arrive as an update to its Google Mobile App soon.