Google Big Brother goes live as Facebook turns five

Google's new Latitude tracking application is bound to raise the hackles of privacy campaigners...

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Latitude, Google’s latest wizard wheeze, allows mobile phone users to track the exact location of their friends as they move around – the idea being to provide an easy answer to the question most dearly-beloved of mobile users: ‘Where are you?’ The application works out where each user is, by triangulating their position using the nearest mobile phone masts, and then plots them on a map using funky little icons. This will be welcomed by protective parents, suspicious spouses and fun-loving friends – not to mention would-be stalkers…

The launch of Google Latitude will inevitably provoke some opposition – many people will be slightly unnerved by the idea that Google will be able to track us everywhere we go, in a Big-Brother-is-watching-you, next-we’ll-be-having-tracking-devices-implanted-in-our-limbs kind of way. ‘It’s going to be a privacy minefield,’ Privacy International’s Simon Davies told the Telegraph (a rather curious image, we thought). ‘Google needs to think through some fundamental security and privacy problems.’ After the controversy over its satellite imagery applications, which take street-level pictures and publish them online, this may be seen as another step in Google’s bid to monitor every aspect of our social lives…

However, Google has actually gone to great lengths to appease the privacy lobby. ‘Everything about Latitude is opt-in,’ says Google’s Vic Gundotra. Users have to sign up for the service, and can only see other signed-up users – assuming they want you to. All users can control not only who sees their location, but also which location you see (and how precisely). So if you’re actually in the pub, you can always adjust your settings so the other half thinks you’re still in the office…

Although we’re a little uneasy about the principle (even if you opt-out, presumably Google will have the ability to opt you back in at any time?), we can’t help being excited by the prospect of being able to keep track of our friends’ movements – not least because it should make it a bit easier for people to actually meet each other in person (the one element of social interaction Google can’t control – yet). And from a business perspective, we can see the thinking: Google is expert in targeted advertising, and this should help it to sell adverts that are directly relevant to each user (i.e. the local pub could advertise to people that it knows are in the vicinity).

Compare Facebook, which celebrates its birthday this week. The all-conquering social networking site may be five years old, but it seems no nearer to working out how to monetise its vast audience. ‘In order for Facebook to live into its teenage years, new sources for revenue must be found,’ as GoAdv president Luca Ascani puts it. With Facebook starting to take on web portals like GoAdv’s Excite, Yahoo, and MSN, it needs to take a leaf out of Google’s book and find an answer fast...


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