Mobile phone users: Big Brother is tracking you

By Rick Perera, IDG News Service |  Networking

TALLINN, ESTONIA -- Jaan Jagomägi sends a SMS (Short Message Service) on his mobile phone. A few seconds later, a map appears on the phone's display. It pinpoints his current location, in the center of the Estonian capital city, Tallinn. It is hard to make out details of the map on the small LCD display, but the point is clear: The wireless provider knows exactly where he is.

"Location-based" services based on that knowledge are on the way.

Jagomägi's company, AS Regio, has developed software for MPS (mobile positioning system) services. Together with mobile carrier AS Eesti Mobiiltelefon (Estonian Mobile Telephone, or EMT), Regio is scheduled to launch on Nov. 1 what the companies say is the world's first such commercially available service.

The residents of this small Baltic country have already established themselves as among the world's most enthusiastic adopters of mobile technologies. A decade after the nation of 1.4 million declared independence from the Soviet Union, 25 percent of Estonians use wireless devices. Estonia's three wireless providers were among the first to offer WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) services, which customers are eagerly embracing.

Using the new MPS services, mobile phone users will be able to request lists of nearby hotels, restaurants, or service stations, based on the user's current location. Other applications, Jagomägi said, include tracking a vehicle's location for fleet management, car anti-theft devices that can find a stolen vehicle, and a map plotter to help two mobile phone users find each other.

EMT development and technology director Tõnu Grünberg said the company has contracted with the Estonian Rescue Board to pinpoint the location of mobile phone users who dial the 112 emergency number. Estonia is the first country to implement such a technology, he said.

"The accuracy is not very good in rural areas -- 300 to 500 meters -- but in city areas it's quite exact because there are so many base stations," he said.

The technology also has potential uses for law enforcement. Already, Estonian officials have used MPS to locate criminal suspects, said Linnar Viik, IT adviser to the country's prime minister.

"We have had a couple of cases of criminal investigations where a court has admitted it [as evidence] for tracking a mobile phone," Viik said. "In one gun-trading case, a person was located in [the city of] Tartu because he made a mobile call."

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