Cellular phones as tracking devices?

Debate: Everybody from 911 operators to restaurant owners could make use of technology to pinpoint callers' locations, but many people worry about the potential for abuse.

May 21, 2001|By Reid Kanaley | Reid Kanaley,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Quiz time: When your cell phone can pinpoint your location - as new mobile handsets will be capable of doing by next year - who might be interested in knowing where you are?

Police responding to your 911 emergency call.

Yourself, in need of driving directions.

The restaurant you happen to be walking past.

Your spouse's divorce lawyer.

The answer, warn some privacy advocates, may be: All of the above - and many more.

Everyone seems to agree that new "Enhanced 911" service for locating the sources of the estimated 120,000 emergency cell phone calls placed every day in the United States is a good move for public safety.

The Federal Communications Commission has directed cellular companies to start issuing phones that determine their locations, either in relation to cell phone transmission towers or by global positioning satellites, by the end of this year. In some cases, the accuracy of the services must be within about 150 feet.

But the remarkable technology also has promise - some might say Orwellian possibilities - as a tool for marketers and snoops of many stripes.

"There is a debate over how cell phones will be used to track individuals. The government, generally, is probably going to use it to go after criminals, and others," said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington advocacy group favoring strong privacy protections.

"We'll probably see some lawsuits and some pretty busy lawyers," predicted Callie Nelsen, market analyst with the research group IDC.

By 2005, location technology will be available to 150 million U.S. wireless subscribers, and the market for mobile yellow pages, driving directions, concierges and other services based on the technology will amount to $6 billion annually, Nelson said.

A frequently mentioned use for location-based service is for coffee shops and stores to transmit menu specials and sale ads to passersby, though industry groups say their members see little use for such schemes, so far.

Industry groups say wireless carriers, handset builders and potential advertisers are working hard to avoid a privacy scare over location services.

The Wireless Advertising Association, for example, said last fall that cell phone subscribers should be asked up front if companies can use their personal information. A separate, similar "opt-in" policy for location-based advertising is under consideration by the association.

"What that policy really means is that everybody in this space - the marketers, the wireless carriers, the wireless ASPs, all those companies - recognize that it's imperative for consumers to accept these new services if wireless data is going to live up to its potential," said Jim O'Brien, co-chair of the Wireless Advertising Association's committee on privacy and spam, and vice president for affiliate marketing for GiantBear, a wireless application service provider.

Another trade group, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, has joined privacy groups in asking the FCC to set privacy rules right away for location services.

"We approached this with a sense of history. We looked very closely at how the wired Internet had dealt with privacy," said Travis Larson, spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. "We set guidelines ahead of time that all our memebers will be following, and we've invited government to get involved."

The privacy advocates remain wary, though.

"Apart from any commercial use of this is what happens to that (location) information that is collected. For example, can it be subpoenaed in a civil suit, what your location was? Can law enforcement agencies have at it?" asked Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, a research group.

"There are some serious constitutional concerns here," added Schwartz, who noted that there is strong Congressional support for "reasonable standards for how law enforcement uses" location data.

One company that has been dealing with the location privacy issue for almost five years is OnStar, the General Motors subsidiary whose global-positioning-satellite-based location and safety service is available on 32 models of GM vehicles.

The company takes the privacy of its 1 million subscribers quite seriously, and, for example, will only track a car that has been confirmed as stolen, said spokeswoman Geri Lama.

But privacy is not a universal concern of OnStar users, Lama said. "Privacy is as much a concern in our subscriber population as it is in the rest of the population: Some people are very conscious of it, and some people could care less," she said.

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