Google Latitude: useful social utility or stalking device?

As many of you may be aware Google has a very advanced and user friendly application called Google Maps.  Google Maps provides traffic details, satellite views, list views, map views, hybrid views, GPS, driving directions, public transit details, and so on.  Google has now taken this application one step further by adding Google Latitude into the mix.  Google Latitude allows you to locate where your family and friends are as well as show them where you are in real time within Google Maps

The privacy settings have an opt-in-only feature, meaning no one can see anyone else’s location without permission.   Once permission is granted the settings can be adjusted and can vary from your location being automatically detected, manually entered or completely hidden from other people, another way to hide is to sing out of Latitude altogether.  Users can also adjust the level of geographic information they are willing to share from a specific spot on a street to a city location.  These settings can be individual specific. 

Users can also upload a picture and change their status line through this account which will both appear as the icon on the map representing them.  The changes here will also reflect in the users Google Talk account (the instant messenger within G-Mail).  This is a great feature as users will be able to update their pictures or status dependant on where they are allowing them to share their surroundings with their friends and family.  The downside to this is that there are many other ways to send instant pictures to others like simply sending a picture through a text message for starters. 

I personally see this as a great tool for parents checking on their kids, or to keep track of elderly relatives that may live on their own.  It is a great security measure but not something you can solely depend on.  Friends and family can use it as a tool to share their whereabouts with each other in a fun, visual way. 

My only concern with this tool is it’s ability to be used as a stalking device.  Scenarios can range from people in shaky relationships cyber stalking their significant others to make sure they know their every move, all the way to predators looking for their vicitims.  Everyday the news reports new ways predators are using to reach their targets; through chat rooms, facebook groups, virtual gaming like X-Box Live.  These tools are giving them the platform to create relationships and have the ability to con, especially children, into providing information that shouldn’t be given to strangers, I wouldn’t be surprised if their are criminal minds out there already plotting to use this tool to know the exactly where their so called “friends” are located. 

Although there are several competitors out there with similar tools, most in the past have been for specific mobile devices.  Google has made this tool easily accesible to the masses.  Still in its early stages I will be interested in what this tool leads to as a social utility.

Deepti Dewan Chowdhry