Using Google Latitude to spy on your workers

It will be interesting to see how Google’s new geo-locator service, called Latitude, plays with small business. Launched yesterday, Latitude transmits the user’s location back to Google for display using the service’s online maps.

The location information comes from a GPS-equipped Smart phones or by triangulation using cell towers. An opt-in service, Latitude also works with laptop computers.

A privacy group is calling Google Inc. ‘s new mapping application an “unnecessary danger” to users’ security and privacy. The criticism comes just a day after Google unveiled Google Latitude , an upgrade to Google Maps that allows people to track the exact location of friends or family through their mobile devices.

Google has struggled with other privacy issues in the past.

It’s easy to think of business uses for Latitude, such as tracking service people as they move from call-to-call. Delivery vehicles might also be tracked, and the service could also be used to make certain the closest resource is always sent to a customer’s request.

And I haven’t even touched on the value of tracking specific people, certain to be a boon to the personal assistants and group admins of the world. I suppose bosses could also use the service to keep an eye on their charges to make sure they are where they are supposed to be.

The business value of Latitude only works if the service updates frequently enough to be useful in near real-time. It also lacks the bells and whistles associated with commercial vehicle tracking systems.

Those systems are expensive, however, and since Latitude is from Google you can bet the price will be right. I would not be surprised, however, to see application developers build commercial versions of the service sometime later.

The downside of Latitude is the amount of extremely personal information, such as the details of all a person’s travels that is sent to Google.

I know people who simply don’t trust Google to not become evil, if the company hasn’t already. They wonder why the company offers so many free applications unless it has some way to monetize them that isn’t obvious to the user. Latitude also doesn’t seem very well-suited for tracking a large number of people at once, though I could be mistaken about this.

Google Latitude not only shows the location of friends, but it can also be used to contact them via SMS, Google Talk or Gmail.

Thursday, Privacy International is raising a red flag about the technology.

“Many people will see Latitude as a cool product, but the reality is that Google has yet again failed to deliver strong privacy and security,” said Simon Davies, the director of London-based Privacy International , in a statement. “The company has a long way to go before it can capture the trust of phone users. As it stands right now, Latitude could be a gift to stalkers, prying employers, jealous partners and obsessive friends.

The dangers to a user’s privacy and security are as limitless as the imagination of those who would abuse this technology.”

Google said their engineers and designers took privacy and security concerns into account when they were creating Google Latitude .

“Concerns have been raised about the possibility of the product being installed onto someone’s mobile phone covertly,” said a Google spokeswoman.

“While many of the scenarios that have been described are unlikely, we take this issue seriously and always listen to feedback from our users. We already have a safety feature working on certain mobile devices that actively alerts users that Latitude is running and we are in the process of extending this notification to other mobile platforms supporting Google Latitude, which will be ready within a week.”

Privacy International, in an online posting, expressed concern that Google Latitude lacks sufficient safeguards to keep someone from surreptitiously opting in to the tracking feature on someone else’s device. The problem arises when someone can gain physical access to another’s cell phone.

The privacy group added that the only way to reduce this threat is to have a regular message pop up on the phone, reminding the user that Latitude is in use.

Google’s spokeswoman noted that the message that pops on Blackberry devices is engaged when Latitude has been installed but not been used for a while

David Coursey is a 25-year veteran of the tech world, as well as a talk radio host and writer forPC World (US)

With files from Sharon Gaudin,Computerworld (US)