The fun and fear of Google's Latitude

by David Spark on February 6, 2009

This week Google launched its location based tracking service, Latitude, which is marketed as a fun way to connect with your friends in person. Simply look at a map and you’ll see photo icons of where all your friends are in the city. In a densely populated city like San Francisco, it could be a godsend for people looking for something to do on a Friday night.

That’s its intended use, evidenced also by how competitors Loopt, Pelago’s Whrrl, and uLocate’s Buddy Beacon have marketed their services. But the problem with all of these competitors is they don’t have enough users. Heck, I don’t know if they have any users. And it’s the lack of users that will prevent anyone from actually using the application.

I experienced this problem myself. I signed up for Pelago’s Whrrl a while back and had it scan my address book to see which of my friends are using the service. Out of 3,000+ contacts, it found two. And one of them I didn’t ever want to know where he was. It didn’t matter how great an application Whrrl is, with no friends using the application, it’s useless.

And that’s the fail point for all of these “where are your friends” location based technologies, and of social media itself. If none of your friends are on, there’s no point in using it.

But Google already has a huge install base, and because of that I believe Latitude will be successful, but not in its current form. It’s still a little kludgy in the way you can update your location manually (the option I chose when I signed up).

But could people’s fear of being watched and tracked prevent them from signing up. I believe what we’ll see is tons of people turning on Latitude on a Friday night and trying to connect with people. I believe Latitude will be successful with people creating volunteer social groups and like calling a party line or entering a chat room, you’ll simply join in when you want to connect with others.

Privacy is not a problem, just as long as nobody takes advantage of the system

Years ago I interviewed a member of the ACLU for a story I was doing on biometrics, which is the use of the uniqueness of our actual bodies for security purposes (e.g. eye scan access, fingerprint access, etc.). While the ACLU rep was a strong proponent of technology in general, he understood that all we have to protect us from the misuse of technology, such as Google Latitude, are laws. So that’s why organizations like the EFF and ACLU exist, to remind us that we need a voice to protect us when someone misuses the collection of information through technology.

If Google’s collecting this information about our whereabouts, then it holds that data, and all we’re doing as a community is trusting that Google as a corporation or some errant employee won’t misuse it. That’s it. Is it good enough to just trust Google? The company has constantly been asking for our trust with its “Do no evil” mantra. But Google is not infallible. They do make mistakes. Just last week, according to Google, the entire Internet was corrupt.

Your mobile phone is a roving bug

The fact that we’re carrying around a trackable device with a recording capability, a mobile phone, gives telecommunications companies access to our whereabouts and record what we’re saying. It’s known as a roving bug, and it was approved to be legal by the U.S. Department of Justice for use against a New York crime family that was already wary to traditional surveillance techniques. The details of what were done is sketchy, but it’s easy to remotely upload and install a piece of software onto a person’s phone. That software acts as a Trojan Horse waiting for a command to turn itself on and turn on the phone’s microphone as a recording device. It even works if the phone is turned off.

How do you stop it? Take the battery out of your cell phone, or don’t use one of the phones (Nextel, Samsung, and Motorola Razr) for which this kind of eavesdropping is possible.

This news item is for the Spark Minute week of 2/9/09 which can be heard daily on Green 960 and 910 KNEW in San Francisco, CA.

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