Is Privacy Where It's At?

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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?

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