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Is Privacy Where It's At?

By Susan Kuchinskas

December 28, 2007

In 2000, the mobile industry's dream was, "You're passing a Starbucks, and your mobile phone pings with a coupon for 50 percent off a latte." In 2008, the reality will be, "You're lost, but your cell phone knows where you are -- and will get you outta there."

Location-based mobile services, or LBS -- mobile data applications that use information about your location derived from GPS, cell tower triangulation or your own input -- can provide a crucial link between emergency workers and people in trouble. They can also be a lot of fun, assisting in finding friends or simply navigating around town.

LBS may really take off in 2008, thanks to a new generation of GPS chips, according to ABI Research analyst Shailendra Pandey.

"One of the biggest hurdles for integrating GPS into handsets was that the chipset cost was very high," he said. Today, "prices have come down, and the manufacturers are also taking care of some of the technology issues like signal strength. Now, operators also seem to be more optimistic about the market for location based services."

While consumers happily embrace services that make life safer, easier and more fun, some privacy experts worry that proliferating GPS-enabled handsets will take us further down the path toward a totally monitored environment.

For instance, the consumer advocacy group Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has warned that consumers should only subscribe to services that offer maximum user control. It also said location-based functions should be opt-in, rather than opt-out, to avoid abuse.

That concern isn't new. In 2000, the wireless industry association CTIA petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to codify rules of notice and consent for using location information.

The association suggested LBS providers should be required to inform consumers about their data collection and use practices before they can use or disclosing their information, allowing consumers to choose whether to participate.

In 2002, the FCC declined to issue rules, saying existing laws were enough. Evidently, however, recent events suggest that further scrutiny might be needed.

Last month, the Washington Post reported that law enforcement officials routinely get court orders requiring mobile network operators to help track suspects. They used to do this by regularly pinging suspects' cell phones; the job has been made even easier with the arrival of GPS in phones.

While this practice could save a life -- for example, helping to locate a kidnapping victim -- some judges don't require law enforcement to show probable cause that a crime is being committed.

According to the Post, one judge reasoned that since a suspect was voluntarily carrying a tracking device, no warrant was necessary.

In August, a New York City employee was fired from his job after the GPS on his city-provided phone showed that he'd been at home before his shift ended on 83 occasions, according to the New York Post.

The judge in that case, according to the report, said an employer "is not expected to notify its employees of all the methods it may possibly use to uncover their misconduct."

Similarly, LBS service provider TeleNav offers TeleNavTrack, a tool promising to employers that they can, according to the company, "See where your workers are and what they're doing."

The service from TeleNav, which claims 14 carrier partners, is only operable when an employee is clocked in. But the company advises employers to inform staff upfront about the service.

"There are more benefits [for employees] at the end of the day," TeleNav co-founder Sal Dhanani told InternetNews.com.. "They don't have to go back to the yard to clock out, and they get navigation help when they need it."

Google found itself in a privacy flap in November with its Maps for Mobile service, which lets users search for businesses nearby and get directions without keying in their address.

Saul Hansell of the New York Times reported, "Google figures out which cell towers are where by secretly enlisting the help of a million of its mobile maps users who happen to have phones with built-in GPS devices that are not locked by the carriers."

The search and advertising Goliath has since posted information about its location collection practices.

A Google spokesman told InternetNews.com. that many of the company's products, including Google Maps for Mobile's My Location, have opt-out features. In the case of Google Maps for Mobile, users must go to the help menu and opt out of the feature.

He pointed out that because Google doesn't know the names or phone numbers of its Maps for Mobile users, the company would be unable to aid law enforcement in tracking suspects.

When parents track minor children, consent isn't an issue. Sprint Nextel, Disney Mobile and Verizon Wireless all offer services that let parents discover where their kids' cell phones are.

Verizon Wireless Chaperone, launched in June 2006, has two options, both available for the Migo, a phone designed for kids. Chaperone's Locator lets parents find the whereabouts of a child's Migo via a Web site. The service's Child Zone feature, meanwhile, lets them establish predetermined areas in which a child can travel with the phone -- automatically alerting them when they leave the zone.

When it unveiled the Chaperone services, Verizon emphasized in a statement that it had taken steps to prevent misuse of the tracking tools: Chaperone would be sold only by verified retail agents or telesales companies, and only to people with "family"-level wireless plans.

Next page: Wireless games lead the charge in privacy.

Page 2 of 2

Perhaps unexpectedly, it's gaming and social networking companies who are leading the charge in establishing firm privacy protections. On the fun side of mobile life, service providers are building in the same kinds of privacy controls found on Web-based social networks.

These include hiding users' identities, approximating their locations, letting users turn location info on or off and providing levels of control for who can find you.

MeetMoi, a socializing service available on all major U.S. carriers, lets users "meet 'texty' singles everywhere you go," as the company's motto states. Subscribers key in their location when they want company, and receive profiles of people nearby who match their criteria. Then, it's up to them to start a text flirtation -- and to take it to the next step if they want.

Meanwhile, users communicate using "handles," while MeetMoi takes care of SMS trafficking, so phone numbers aren't revealed. Neither are users' exact locations revealed. Usually, they're within a mile or two.

Company CEO Andrew Weinreich said users are smart enough to realize the service has their cell phone number -- and therefore an audit trail -- which cuts down on inappropriate behavior.

"Typically, people who engage in unseemly behave do so because they can go undetected," he said. "So we're much less likely to see the types of behavior that people worry about online."

Likewise, in the PhoneTag Elite game, players are assigned an anonymous "victim" and given his or her location on a map. Using GPS phones as a navigational aid, players' physical movements are mapped on the phone as they attempt to move close enough to "tag" their quarry. When a player gets close enough, they hit the "capture" button on the game interface.

But in PhoneTag, you're the hunted, as well as the hunter: Someone else has your location and is following you. The game is offered by LivePlanet, a multimedia entertainment production company, and KnowledgeWhere, a provider of technology for location-based mobile services.

Like MeetMoi, PhoneTag's founders also are taking steps to avoid privacy-related problems.

According to KnowledgeWhere, the company's "privacy engine" technology creates the illusion of proximity while ensuring that hunter and hunted will never actually meet. Its system uses a patented process called "pseudo-positioning" -- players' real-life movements are mapped into a virtual world.

As a result, your direction, rate of speed and distance traveled are reflected in this abstraction, as well as your partner's -- so it feels real. But the person you're playing against might be in another city or state.

"You can play the game and it's still meaningful, but you will not actually physically meet the person," said KnowledgeWhere co-founder Jim George. In addition to keeping players safe, the approach also ensures there will always be someone to play with -- even if there are no users near your real-world location.

Likewise, TeleNav recently launched Whereaboutz, a friend-finder built on the Facebook platform; it's available as a Facebook widget and also as a download for mobile phones.

An interactive map shows Whereaboutz members where their friends are, as well as their comments. A local search function lets them look up businesses nearby, so they can suggest places to meet.

Just as on Facebook, users can set levels of access for individual friends. Users must manually update their current locations; when the service rolls out to GPS-enabled handsets, they'll have to manually turn on the location-sensing feature.

Moreover, the GPS version will approximate people's locations, Dhanani said.

"We'll probably round it up to the nearest half-mile, or more if people want that," he said. "We're still thinking through what the right distance is."

Advertising isn't in the near future of any of these apps. Instead, they'll be offered as premium services, usually with a monthly subscription fee of up to $9.99. While the promise of that on-the-spot Starbucks coupon is still on the horizon, marketers are moving very cautiously.

"The cellular phone is my lifeline," said Mark Simon, vice president of Did-It, a search marketing industry relations agency. "It's not like a desktop, where you have plenty of landscape to put advertising units on. Once you start bombarding that small [screen], you're going to get very annoyed very quickly."

In fact, Simon says he'd be willing to pay extra to avoid being hunted by marketers. In the age of always-on surveillance, will that make privacy the ultimate premium service?