Ramblings & ephemera

Tracking via cell phone is easy

From Brendan I. Koerner’s “Your Cellphone is a Homing Device” (Legal Affairs: July/August 2003):

What your salesman probably failed to tell you – and may not even realize – is that an E911-capable phone can give your wireless carrier continual updates on your location. The phone is embedded with a Global Positioning System chip, which can calculate your coordinates to within a few yards by receiving signals from satellites. GPS technology gave U.S. military commanders a vital edge during Gulf War II, and sailors and pilots depend on it as well. In the E911-capable phone, the GPS chip does not wait until it senses danger, springing to life when catastrophe strikes; it’s switched on whenever your handset is powered up and is always ready to transmit your location data back to a wireless carrier’s computers. Verizon or T-Mobile can figure out which manicurist you visit just as easily as they can pinpoint a stranded motorist on Highway 59.

So what’s preventing them from doing so, at the behest of either direct marketers or, perhaps more chillingly, the police? Not the law, which is essentially mum on the subject of location-data privacy. As often happens with emergent technology, the law has struggled to keep pace with the gizmo. No federal statute is keeping your wireless provider from informing Dunkin’ Donuts that your visits to Starbucks have been dropping off and you may be ripe for a special coupon offer. Nor are cops explicitly required to obtain a judicial warrant before compiling a record of where you sneaked off to last Thursday night. Despite such obvious potential for abuse, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission, the American consumer’s ostensible protectors, show little enthusiasm for stepping into the breach. As things stand now, the only real barrier to the dissemination of your daily movements is the benevolence of the telecommunications industry. A show of hands from those who find this a comforting thought? Anyone? …

THE WIRELESS INDUSTRY HAS A NAME FOR SUCH CUSTOM-TAILORED HAWKING: “location-based services,” or LBS. The idea is that GPS chips can be used to locate friends, find the nearest pizzeria, or ensure that Junior is really at the library rather than a keg party. One estimate expects LBS to be a $15 billion market by 2007, a much-needed boost for the flagging telecom sector.

That may be fine for some consumers, but what about those who’d rather opt out of the tracking? The industry’s promise is that LBS customers will have to give explicit permission for their data to be shared with third parties. This is certainly in the spirit of the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act of 1999, which anticipated that all cellphone carriers will feature E911 technology by 2006. The law stipulated that E911 data – that is, an individual’s second-by-second GPS coordinates – could only be used for nonemergency purposes if “express prior authorization” was provided by the consumer. …

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