Will Big Brother track you by cell phone?

Thanks to car PCs and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers in wireless phones and handhelds, location services soon will eagerly offer roadside assistance, traffic updates, and route planning as well as shopping and services guides. But what will these services do with the information they gather on your habits and whereabouts?

These major issues of privacy and security must be addressed for consumers to adopt these services, agree industry vendors, who are gathered here for the L-Commerce 2001 conference. Participants include location technology vendors, wireless carriers, and consumer rights advocates. But for the consumer, protecting your personal information also means addressing how and when government agencies, such as law enforcement and courts, can obtain such information from third parties such as service providers.

Location-tracking draws near

Starting this fall, Sprint PCS and other wireless carriers expect to roll out location services, thanks to GPS technology built into new phone chip sets, says Joseph Averkamp, senior director for the Sprint PCS automotive telematics business. "Early services will be traffic information, route, and roadside assistance," Averkamp says.

One company, Airbiquity, provides a GPS accessory that fits onto most Nokia phones. It replaces the standard battery pack with one containing a GPS receiver.

Airbiquity expects to partner with the likes of AAA or JD Power Car Club, which would offer the accessory to customers, says Dan Allen, president and chief executive officer of Airbiquity. Users of the GPS accessory can reach a call center that provides mapping software, push a button to send their location information, and get directions or assistance.

Advertisers are eager to take advantage of location services to alert you when you pass near a store that might be of interest. They call the tactic mobile commerce or "m-commerce."

While such services are likely, Sprint PCS's Averkamp acknowledges that consumers may not really want to see ads for McDonalds as they drive by the Golden Arches. However, Sprint PCS is clearly evaluating such services, although emphasizing their usefulness and availability on customer request.

Addressing consumer privacy concerns

"Consumers won't use systems they don't trust," says Alan Davidson, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Location services monitor movement and habits, something many consumers may not want known."

Consumer privacy issues fall into two categories: commercial and government, Davidson notes. Commercial privacy centers on how carriers and service providers use your information about your whereabouts, and how they alert you of their use.

"Consumers need to be notified when and what location information is collected," Davidson says. Like other consumer advocates, CDT recommends people get the opportunity to opt out of such tracking. "I strongly recommend service providers get consent first," he says.

Sprint PCS agrees, says Averkamp.

"Consumers must have the choice and have access to the personal data that will be used for location services," Averkamp says.

Also, Davidson contends the law needs to change in regard to government access to such information.

"If a carrier collects information, somebody will want to use it for litigation or an investigation," he says. "While the Fourth Amendment protects individuals, the rules are very different for third-party companies that collect information."

"The law does very little to protect privacy here," he adds. "We need to raise the bar so that you're not forced to turn over information anytime someone asks for it."

Hands-free car safety addressed

One place location services will surface is the car. The growing field of telematics--telecommunications and computing in the car--includes in-car computers as well as wireless phones and PDAs used in cars. Telematics will bring safety, information, and communication as well as entertainment to the car, says John Slosar, director of telematics and multimedia systems at Visteon.

Initial location services like On Star and Televigation's Navigation service provide directions as you drive. Other, emerging car services include location-tracking when your airbag is deployed (presumably during a collision), or remote unlocking of doors, industry representatives say.

But tracking your every move isn't necessarily ideal, especially if the data is used for some other purpose or released to a third party. Televigation's answer is to destroy the records before they're requested.

"We keep your location data for only one day, in case it can be used to help you," says HP Lin, president and chief executive officer of Televigation. "But then we destroy it."

Driver distraction is another key concern facing telematics and location service providers. Already, 37 states are considering allowing only hands-free mobile phone use in cars, says Andy Rimkus, vice president of marketing at Airbiquity.

"Driver distraction can be managed with hands-free phones and voice recognition, or touchscreens versus keyboards," Visteon's Slosar says. "Driving is the primary task in the automobile."

Facing regulation

Digital privacy issues are already being scrutinized in several forums, including collecting user information and software and site use policies. Politicians and the government have become very interested in wireless location services.

To avoid extensive regulations, service providers and location technology vendors will need to ensure they will protect privacy, L-Commerce attendees acknowledge.

CDT's Davidson recommends location services collect only information that is essential to a service, and that anonymity options be offered whenever possible.

Of course, in the case of credit card tracking, consumers only felt comfortable when there were heavy regulations on who could do anything with that information, he says. "Regulations could help give way to consumer confidence in location services, too."

This story, "Will Big Brother track you by cell phone?" was originally published by PCWorld.

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