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Loopt: Use your cell phone to locate friends

by Larry Magid

You’ve heard about social networks like MySpace and Facebook where people use PCs to set up profiles and check in with their friends. You may also be aware that you can now access these networks from a mobile phone so you can update your own profile and visit others from wherever you are. But now there’s a new twist – phone-based social networking with built in geo-location.

Palo Alto-based Loopt is a mobile social networking service designed to “put your friends on the map.” (Disclosure: Loopt is one of several sponsors of a non-profit social networking safety project I work with called ConnectSafely.org.) The service, which costs $2.99 a month, currently works with phones from boost mobile – a pre-paid service owned by Sprint. But Loopt Vice President Mark Jacobstein said it will soon launch with several major carriers.

Congress has mandated that all cell phones eventually be equipped with GPS so emergency 911 personnel can locate people automatically when they call in from a cell phone. While the technology is there for emergency use, it can also be used for commercial purposes like Loopt and Navtel’s phone-based GPS navigation system.

Loopt allows users to use their phone to see where the friends are on a map as long as all parties are Loopt subscribers. It also issues an alert when a friend is nearby and gives users the ability to send messages only to friends who happen to be nearby. So, if you’re hanging out at a restaurant, you could invite all your friends within a 2 miles radius to join you. There is a “geo-blog” that location-stamps photos or text entries automatically.

Helio offers a similar service called Buddy Beacon that works only with its phones on its network. There will likely be several other companies entering this market.

Services like these raise some alarming privacy and safety questions. Could a stalker or a jealous lover use it to find someone, could a predator use it to locate vulnerable children and could the government or an employer find out where you’ve been?

Jacobstein said the service is “all permission-based and you can turn permission on or off at any point so only people you specify can know where you are.” He also stresses that it’s a private network “where you can only invite friends whose phone number you know,” so there’s no ability to browse for “friends” as you can on some social networks.

And while authorities with a subpoena might be able to use it to locate you, the history of where you’ve been is automatically erased once you change positions. Because they’re using a cell phone, users aren’t quite as anonymous as they may be on the Web.

Still, there is reason to be concerned. Which is why, on April 25, I’ll be speaking at a Washington, D.C., conference (netcaucus.org/events/2007/location) to address safety issues of location-based social networking.

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