Google Latitude: Vital friend-finder or privacy nightmare?

Google Latitude: Vital friend-finder or privacy nightmare?San Francisco  - Google announced a new mapping feature Wednesday that allows people's locations to be featured on Google maps in 27 countries. While the new application could be helpful in locating friends, or for parents keeping track of their teenagers, it also raises serious privacy issues, experts say.

The new feature, called Latitude, allows people-tracking via the internet and smartphones such as Blackberry, Google Android, Windows Mobile and Nokia. It will soon be available via the iPhone.

To use Latitude you must sign up for the service and contact the people you wish to share information with. Those people can either reject the request, agree to accept your location on their maps, or agree to also show you their location.

Google also allows users to limit their location information to a city if they prefer not to have their exact movements tracked. Users can even manually input a location if they wish to tell a white lie about where they are.

In announcing the new feature, Google product manager Steve Lee said the company saw it as a useful family tool. "It's certainly not for everyone," he said. "But we think it's going to be really useful for families and close friends and attractive to a lot of users."

"It really enables a new type of social interaction," he said.

Google tried to downplay privacy fears by saying that it gives users complete control over who can see their location, as well as what location they see. The giant online search company also pledged that it will only keep users' most recent location on its servers at any time, and that it will not hold any information if people choose to hide their location.

However, privacy experts say the program could still pose problems. "Will federal officials or the police ever try to force Google to relay your location information?" asked PC World's Ian Paul. "Where you are can also say a lot about you especially when it comes to your free time."

Consumer affairs expert Mike Adams points out that because the service relies on a combination of GPS and cellphone tower triangulation, the implication is that Google can keep track of every cellphone user in the countries in which the service operates.

"Has the age of electronic stalking begun?" Adams asked. "Google engineers now have access to the physical location of virtually every cellphone user in the country. Even if they're not making your location public, the point is they could if they wanted to." (dpa)

Technology Update: