No Hiding from a Cell Phone

Technology that pinpoints mobile users is coming. A potential boon for emergency services and marketers, it has privacy advocates worried

By Jane Black

Karla Guiterrez drowned in February, pleading for help over her mobile phone. For three horrifying minutes, she tried to identify her exact location to 911 operators after her car skidded off the Florida Turnpike into a canal. The Guiterrez case received national coverage, but it was far from the first incident where tracking technology might have saved a life. This year in Orlando, a man collapsed on a jogging trail after suffering from a heart attack. Though a bystander called 911, she got confused about her exact location and by the time rescuers located her, the man had died. In Santa Fe, N.M., a woman who was brutally attacked by her boyfriend, called 911 but was too upset to say where she was. Her boyfriend returned in the middle of the call and the phone went dead.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has mandated that technology that pinpoints the location of mobile callers be in place across the country by Oct. 1. But already, there is controversy surrounding the program, called e-911. Privacy advocates worry that technology designed to track victims like Guiterrez can also track everybody, everywhere they go. That would make it easy for say, Starbucks, to send an e-coupon to a customer approaching one of its stores. (And let's face it, how often is anyone very far from a Starbucks?)

It also would make it possible for law firms or law-enforcement agencies to subpoena records on a customer's whereabouts during a criminal or civil investigation. Imagine what New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who is in the midst of a brutal and public divorce, would have to say about that. "This is going to become one of the hottest privacy issues, because many of those who are ambivalent about having online activities tracked feel very strongly about tracking of their physical activities," says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.


  Worse, tracking technology will cost hundreds of millions -- and maybe as much as a billion dollars -- per major carrier to implement, according to industry sources. And the FCC has conveniently left it up to each carrier to figure out how to pay for it. In fact, many carriers are pleading for more time, arguing that they're still working out the kinks in the technology and how to finance it. Privacy advocates predict that most carriers will turn to marketers willing to pay top dollar for consumer information. It could be a hot market: Forrester Research predicts that e-coupons and other mobile commerce will be worth between $20 billion and $30 billion by 2004.

That's nothing to sneeze at. But this time, the specter of a privacy invasion probably doesn't loom large enough to call the value of e-911 into question. In 2000, 118,627 calls were made to 911 each day from cell phones. According to the FCC, that's 30% to 50% of all 911 calls on any given day. It seems clear to this reporter that it's more important to save precious seconds in a rescue operation than to protect cell users from unwanted marketing. Moreover, wireless carriers are taking the right approach to protecting consumer data. The Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. has already filed a petition with the FCC on behalf of many of its members to set rules that would require customers to explicitly request to receive marketing information.

Here's why: Mobile commerce is marketable, but so is privacy. Unlike many Internet companies, which rely on data-mining as a primary source of revenue, wireless companies make their money off per-minute charges. It's in their best interest to keep people using their phones -- and that means protecting customers from snooping and unwanted marketing pitches. "We've learned a lot from Internet services about privacy," says Jeffrey Nelson, spokesman at Verizon Wireless. "It's clear that people are looking toward using location capabilities for commercial services, but we will err on the side of caution."


  That's not just lip service. In March, Verizon Wireless won an injunction against a Phoenix-based mortgage company that was sending unwanted text messages and voicemails to its customers. Says Nelson: "In the end, it's not the mortgage company that will be blamed, it's Verizon Wireless. When it comes to a true or a perceived abridgment of privacy, customers will go elsewhere. That's a financial incentive business understands."

Moreover, keeping track of every time a cell customer is near Starbucks is no easy task. Wireless carriers say they are already having trouble finding a technology that is accurate enough to meet FCC requirements for 911 calls. "The processing power to just follow 911 calls is keeping us busy," says Andrew Clegg, the principal member of Cingular Wireless' technical staff. "If you don't dial 911, we don't track you. The technology is so complicated that it's not physically possible to track everyone all the time." Verizon Wireless's Nelson disagrees: "Theoretically, it's possible. But since we have 27 million customers, it's unlikely we would do it."

That said, the right technology could even make it easier to protect consumer privacy. Advocates would like to see a program that allows users to actively choose to be located, say by pushing a button, rather than being tracked at all times. One company working to implement this kind of tech is SnapTrack, which wireless-equipment maker Qualcomm purchased for $1 billion in March, 2000. SnapTrack's technology uses information collected from the U.S. Defense Dept.'s 24 orbiting satellites to determine the three-dimensional position of an object. It can process signals and provide the location of a wireless caller -- even inside buildings, where conventional geo-positioning system technologies don't work.


  SprintPCS has already announced that it plans to use SnapTrack technology. And according to the FCC, 60% of wireless carriers intend to implement a similar solution. "Safety is the killer app. But the key is that the locator defaults to the off setting," says Jonas Neihardt, vice-president of federal-government affairs for Qualcomm.

Whether tracking technology turns out to be a revolution in safety or an Orwellian nightmare will depend on how the technology is used. But in this case, sorting out privacy before implementing e-911 systems would be putting the cart before the horse. There's always a threat to privacy with new technology. But with e-911, carriers have an incentive and a responsibility to protect their customers. It's literally the difference between life and death.

Black covers technology and privacy issues for BW Online in New York

Edited by Beth Belton