Big Brother, Pinned To Your Chest

Alarms do not go off when Andy Hopper ducks out of his Olivetti Research Laboratory office in the middle of the afternoon, nor do red lights flash. Just the same, within 15 seconds of his departure, any colleague who checks the employee-tracking data base at the lab in Cambridge, England, will discover he's gone. Not only that: By tapping into the data base from afar, any of the 5 million users of the worldwide Internet computer network--utter strangers, even--can find out that Hopper has hopped. When he's in the office, inquisitors can usually find out when he has visitors--and exactly who they are.

Hopper, director of the Olivetti lab, willingly sheds his privacy each day when he puts on his "active badge," a computer in the shape of a clip-on ID card. The badge signals its wearer's location by sending off infrared signals, which are read by sensors sprinkled around a building. The sensors, in turn, are wired to a computer, which collects the information and distributes it over a network.

LONG SHOT. So far, only 400 or so people wear active badges daily--all in research centers in Britain, Italy, and the U.S. But Hopper says that by late this year or early next year, Italy's Olivetti, which holds the basic patent, will begin selling active-badge systems commercially. While prices haven't been set, Hopper says the systems don't use any costly new technology. Ask Hopper how many people will be wearing active badges in 5 or 10 years and he says: "Everybody."

Unlikely. Still, it's a good bet that active badges will find a place among the growing array of technologies that label and track people in their daily activities. Already, global positioning systems keep tabs on cross-country trucks. And cellular phone systems act as tracking systems, since they must pin down the approximate location of every customer to deliver incoming calls via the closestantenna.

But as the use of such systems spreads, government and business increasingly will be challenged to balance the individual's right to privacy with corporate desires for efficiency and control. Employees, after all, don't want to feel like house-arrest convicts whose bracelets trigger alarms when they stray from home--a primitive predecessor to active badge technology. Nobody understands that better than Roy Want, who invented active badges in 1988 while at Olivetti. "It's great technology in the right hands," says Want. "But if you've got a bad manager, he's going to make your life hell."

Active badges can make workaday life a lot simpler. By knowing when someone's tied up in a meeting or out, for instance, colleagues can avoid interrupting each other or making wasted phone calls and trips to empty offices. At Olivetti's Cambridge lab, among other places, incoming calls ring on the phones nearest the intended recipients, wherever they happen to be.

At the Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, electronic doors unlock automatically for privileged badge wearers. Digital Equipment Corp., which helps fund Olivetti research, this year showed a prototype system of active badges for doctors in hospitals. And there's no reason active badges couldn't be hooked to, say, the heart monitors of coronary patients so they could stroll the halls and be found quickly if their pulses go awry.

WHO SAYS NO? Meanwhile, fertile minds are working on technical ways to safeguard badge wearers' privacy. At Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center, researcher Want and others are developing ways for wearers to limit the number of people who have access to information generated by the badges. And no one at any of the research centers is required to wear a badge--a comforting thought for those who sneak out to Jack's Powerlifting Salon at 3 p.m.

But there's one big problem with the safeguards: The more that wearers are allowed to limit the information coming from their active badges, the less worthwhile the systems become. For instance, if only one of four people in a room is wearing an active badge, there's no way to tell that a meeting is going on. The result? Many employers are bound to try making badge use mandatory. That could trigger a legal brawl.

If active badges catch on, it won't be the first time society surrendered some privacy for convenience: Millions of Americans have laid their shopping habits bare by using credit cards. With enough safeguards, active badges could turn out to be more helpful than hellish. Still, it must be said, they're not good news for the Greta Garbos of the world, who just vant to be alone.

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