It sounded too Orwellian ever to succeed. In 2000, Korean cellular carrier SK Telecom introduced a service called "find friends" that lets others follow your every move, using a signal beamed from your handset. At the time, many wondered whether anyone would consent to such tracking.
But five years -- and countless terrorist attacks, earthquakes, and other calamities -- later, the service is taking off. "I used to be worried when my boyfriend didn't answer my calls," says Shim You Sun, a 25-year-old accountant who pays 11 cents each time she checks up on him. "Now I can rest assured that he is at work or busy attending a seminar."
She's one of more than 4 million Koreans who have signed up for various services using technology that can determine a cellular subscriber's location. One, costing $3 per month, will send a message with your coordinates to friends and family periodically while you're traveling. Another will automatically dispatch a text message to friends who get within a block or so of each other as they move around town. Yet another, costing 29 cents a day, will send a message if a person isn't at a specified place at a certain time and then allows the tracker to see the person's movements over the previous five hours. And 20,000 parents pay $10 per month for alerts if their children stray from the route between school and home. The Korea Association of Information & Telecommunication reckons such services are growing by 74% annually, with revenues expected to triple in 2007, to $1.54 billion, from $500 million last year.
In Korea, the future may have arrived early. Elsewhere it might take a while before consumers warm up to the idea of cellphone tracking. In the U.S., a company called Teen Arrive Alive offers parents a $20-a-month tracking service for their teens. But to date the company has sold the service to only one cell-phone carrier, Nextel.
Others are having a tough time, too. Cingular phased out a tracking service offered by AT&T Wireless when the two carriers merged last year. Small wonder: Less than 20% of Americans are willing to pay for such info, says market watcher Jupiter Research.
In other countries, consumers are proving more open to cellular tracking. In Britain, The Carphone Warehouse offers mapAmobile, a $52-a-year service that lets parents track their cell-toting kids. And in Japan, subscribers can sign up for text messages advertising bargains at department stores as they pass by.
Korea, though, is clearly at the forefront -- and not just for consumers. Hwang Yoon, who runs a call center for 1,500 taxi drivers, uses a service that broadcasts text messages to cabdrivers within a one-, two-, or three-kilometer radius of a fare's location. The first driver who responds -- by pushing a button on the phone -- gets the job. "This technology is an excellent and cheap fit for us," says Hwang. Sales of business-related tracking services in Korea are expected to jump more than fivefold this year, to $248 million, from $43 million last year.
KEEPING IT PRIVATE
Even so, the 1984 feel of some of these services has prompted Seoul to step in to ensure customers' privacy. In December, the National Assembly approved a law that requires a government license for all companies gathering such location information. Companies with licenses can only share that information with people designated by those being tracked, and those individuals are ensured access to detailed records of all requests for tracking. They can also opt out of the service any time or decide to slip away temporarily by selecting a "hide" option on their phones. "We saw lots of potential in location-based services and took steps to protect individual rights as there were lingering concerns over privacy," says Pan Sang Kwon, a deputy director at the Ministry of Information & Communication.
It may seem creepy to some, but for many Koreans the increased security of letting others know where you are is worth the tradeoff.
By Moon Ihlwan in Seoul, with Andy Reinhardt in Paris