Will Big Brother Track You by Cell Phone?
Your next cell phone may be able to tell your mobile carrier--and possibly others--exactly where you are and where you've been.
Starting in October, new cell phones will contain Global Positioning System units for use with location services offering emergency help, traffic and shopping aids, and more.
But the questions of what such services do with the data they gather on you and who can access it raise a host of privacy concerns that are far from resolved.
Cell phone tracking was propelled by the Federal Communications Commission, which adopted enhanced 911 rules to cover wireless services. For E911's first phase, cellular carriers must be able to pinpoint, to the nearest cell tower, the location of someone calling 911. For Phase II, carriers must be able to pinpoint a 911 caller's location to within 50 to 300 meters.
FCC requirements mandate that the first phones equipped with Phase II capabilities appear this October; nearly all cell phones are supposed to comply by 2005. Thus far, Sprint PCS is the only major carrier that claims to be on schedule to ship some location-enabled phones this fall.
Naturally, vendors want to take advantage of the mandated location features to offer you something beyond emergency help--and more targeted than the info on nearby ATMs and movies you can already get. All major carriers have plans, but none have released specifics. As a result, various issues--costs, exactly how the services will work, and whether your location will be broadcast the moment you turn your phone on (a battery drain) or only on request--remain unresolved.
Advertisers are eager to use location services to alert you when you pass near a store that might be of interest. Such services are likely in some form, but carriers are proceeding cautiously. They're aware you may not want to see ads for McDonalds every time you pass by the golden arches. Carriers don't want to annoy users because it's so easy to switch providers, says Allen Nogee, a senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group.
The GPS units required for location services should add less than $50 to phone costs according to Cahners In-Stat. Carriers may cover costs or pass them on as part of fee-based service plans. You'll probably have to buy a new phone to get the services, but companies such as Airbiquity are designing batteries containing built-in GPS units you could add to certain existing phones.
As cell phones with tracking abilities come to market, myriad privacy concerns loom.
For example, should government agencies, including law enforcement, have unfettered access to your GPS data? If your provider--or any third-party company it contracts with--stores your location info, government agents could access it fairly easily.
Also, will you soon have to contend with mega-marketing databases that keep tabs on where and how often you shop, and with cell phone spam?
Letting consumers opt out is one answer to these concerns. The Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999 states that without express prior authorization, a user shall not be considered to have approved access to location information from commercial mobile services. A bill now in a House of Representatives subcommittee would go further, explicitly requiring "customer consent to the provision of wireless call location information." A similar new bill in the Senate would require providers to notify users when the service tracks them, and prohibit providers from disclosing or selling data without getting customer consent.
The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, which represents handset makers and carriers, has also acted. It petitioned the FCC to set up common rules for carriers governing how to notify users and obtain consent for location services, as well as to establish privacy and security standards for user data. CTIA also asked the FCC to allow a safe harbor for those following FCC rules.
Carriers have an economic incentive to protect your privacy, but location technology providers that some carriers use may not, Nogee warns.
As services roll out, both consumers and providers will start working through these thorny issues. Still to be determined: whether users bite and are willing to pay at all.