Wherefore Art Thou? Your Mobile Knows...
By Heidi Kriz, Thu Jan 11 00:00:00 GMT 2001

US wireless carriers are finding a big upside to FCC regulations requiring them to locate emergency callers: location-based services.


You know all those TV ads pitching the charms of doing business by wireless? Like the ones where the executive barks out business deals over the phone, in between shooting his first under-par golf game?

New laws coming into play that have some worried that those dream scenarios could soon turn into nightmares.

In 1996, The United States Federal Communications Commission passed regulations requiring operators to be able to provide 911 operators with a caller's location within 100 meters by October 2001. With that announcement and again after the telecom industry stepped forward with their plans to make money with the technology, there was a collective outcry from privacy advocates and some members of the press.

Some came up with scary hypothetical scenarios, ranging from the bemusing to the disturbing. Like your boss tracing your "sick call" to the office back to your real location: the neighborhood gin joint. Annoying ads popping up on your wireless. Or the FBI tracing your every move without you knowing it.

But the truth of the matter is, unlike online privacy issues with the Internet, this time there is the opportunity for everyone involved - consumers, government, the industry - to respond more sensitively thoughtfully to privacy concerns. And in turn, their collective response will also help determine the shape and services of the new market niche: "location-based services."

The Technology of E911

The e911 mandate came about when US policymakers became concerned that emergency calls made from cell phones were harder to pinpoint and getting slower responses than calls from landline phones. So they decided that the telecom carriers had to bear the cost of coming up with new phones and technologies that would enable a caller's location to be pinpointed.

When big telecom companies were told they must bear the burden of the FCC's e911 tracking requirements, at first they resented it. It would be too burdensome and too costly, they complained. But then, with advent of m-commerce and a slew of potential new services to offer consumers, the telecoms began to get excited about the possibilities, springing up a new market niche -- location-based services.

So what are those likely to be?

"They are only bound by the limits of your imagination," according to the Travis Larson, the spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association.

"Really exciting services that are time- and location- based will become possible," says Larson.

"One possible scenario goes something like this: say you want to buy a certain pair of pants. You program this goal into your wireless, and then, at a time when you are passing nearby a Gap store, with just that pair of khaki's, you get a message directing you to the nearby store, and also maybe a screen coupon for a discount."

Another possibility industry reps like to imagine is the wireless device standing in for a popular restaurant guide like Zagat's. Except that when you tell it you are looking for an Italian place nearby, it locates it for you, and gives you a detailed map, based on your current whereabouts.

What Are the Boundaries?

These and other possibilities were recently discussed at an e911 workshop, sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission in Washington D.C. At the two-day workshop, representatives from the industry, government and privacy advocacy groups came together to make assess the new technologies in development, and how the subsequent privacy demands would be handled.

David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, represented his organization's concerns at the conference. He says he came away from the workshop reasonably optimistic.

"Everybody was kind of pleasantly surprised that there seemed to be a fair amount of consensus on policy issues," says Sobel.

He attributed this in part to the earlier privacy battles waged over online privacy on the Internet.

"Compared to the issue of online privacy, this was a more mature discussion. We now have a common vocabulary," says Sobel.

Perhaps most importantly where e911 privacy is concerned, the FCC regulations already restrict the cell phone and wireless carriers to tracking the location of their users only when they make 911 phone calls. If the industry wants to take the tracking any further, they have to get the clear permission of the consumer.

Nevertheless, even this opt-in clause still worries some privacy advocates.

"There is the possibility of 'feature creep,'" says Richard Smith, chief technical officer for the Privacy Foundation, a Denver-based watchdog group.

"Also, it's very difficult to anticipate how this is all going to play our before the new regulations are implemented," he says. "At the FTC e911 workshop, people were just talking hypothetically, doing slide presentations. Nobody had anything tangible to scrutinize yet."

But the CTIA's Larson counters that privacy fears should be adequately allayed by the following industry principals the organization has developed:

"All wireless location providers must inform each customer about the collection and use of location information;

They must provide the customer with a meaningful opportunity to consent to the collection of location information before the information is used;

They must ensure the security and integrity of any data collected and permit the customer reasonable access to it to ensure it's accuracy;

They must provide uniform rules and privacy expectations so consumers are not confused as they roam or use different location technologies."

Smith of the Privacy Foundation says a lot will depend on how well people are educated and alert to the boundaries of their services, and what they are signing up for.

"It's really crucial that everyone pay very close attention to the fine print, so the potential abuse of these services might be minimized," he says.

Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.