Just in case you have ever wanted to know your friends' precise movements--every location, every right turn, every trip to Starbucks--Google has launched Latitude, a new feature for Google Maps that runs on your PC and mobile device. Latitude is more evidence that social networking tools will increasingly be layered on top of existing apps.
The early reviews are good (Techmeme). Google Maps gets social. And more importantly, Google has done the social networking thing on its own terms and from a position of strength (Maps, see Google Mobile blog).
Link Google Maps Latitude up with Twitter and Facebook in some mashup and I'll be able to tell when my friends hit a public bathroom in Grand Central. Great isn't it?
I have to wonder. I sat through an information security conference at Wharton last Friday and was struck by the privacy concerns around social networking. Big point: If you're hometown, birth date and name are all on Facebook for the world to see an intuitive hacker could get guess the first five numbers on your social security number rather easily. What happens when that data is scraped in some algorithm?
Right now Latitude--and other features of its ilk--are nice toys. Increasingly I wonder about potential privacy issues.
Needless to say Google has addressed those issues:
Latitude is a new feature for Google Maps on your mobile device. It's also an iGoogle gadget on your computer. Once you've opted in to Latitude, you can see the approximate location of your friends and loved ones who have decided to share their location with you. So now you can do things like see if your spouse is stuck in traffic on the way home from work, notice that a buddy is in town for the weekend, or take comfort in knowing that a loved one's flight landed safely, despite bad weather.
And with Latitude, not only can you see your friends' locations on a map, but you can also be in touch directly via SMS, Google Talk, Gmail, or by updating your status message; you can even upload a new profile photo on the fly. It's a fun way to feel close to the people you care about.
Fun aside; we recognize the sensitivity of location data, so we've built fine-grained privacy controls right into the application. Everything about Latitude is opt-in. You not only control exactly who gets to see your location, but you also decide the location that they see. For instance, let's say you are in Rome. Instead of having your approximate location detected and shared automatically, you can manually set your location for elsewhere — perhaps a visit to 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. So for each person, you can choose to share your best available location or your city-level location, or you can hide. Everything is under your control and, of course, you can sign out of Latitude at any time.
Those settings are critical. After all I'd rather not let the world know I'm in Rome and my house is unattended for two weeks. That's just me. The folks that worry about this stuff may tinker with Latitude, but shy away (it's going to be a great teenager tracking device in the future). The rest of the folks that Twitter every movement (even bowel once in a while) will find Latitude impressive.