Future Shock

Eric Zorn’s Notebook: The Human Lojack:

Steven Levy reports in Newsweek that “mobile-phone makers (must) comply with an FCC “E911″ mandate dictating that by the end of 2005 all handsets must include GPS that pinpoints the owner’s location,” a bit of future shock I missed.

He refers to it as “a human equivalent of the LoJack system to find stolen cars.” And while we may at first enjoy some of it’s obvious advantages – such as keeping track of our teens and finding friends – ultimately “it will dawn on us that information drawn from our movements has compromised our “locational privacy,” and that “pursuing our love affair with wireless will result in the loss of a hitherto unheralded freedom—the license to get lost.”

This is why analogies to explain technical advances drive me nuts. GPS is an example of a system that gets it exactly right — the transmitter is completely passive, and the receiver can use that information to determine its location without any third party even knowing there is a GPS receiver. Mobile E911 then transmits this information when you dial 911. Privacy is assured.

Now, the article itself mostly talks about owner-driven (in this case, employers tracking employees with company phones who are out doing deliveries) tracking, which is a different story. But some of this stuff is just excessive:

The prospect of being tracked “turns the freedom of mobile telephony upside down,” says Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. His concern is government surveillance and the storage of one’s movements in databases. In fact, if information from the GPS signals is retained, it would be trivial to retain a log of an individual’s movements over a period of years (just as phone records are kept).

Except, again, there is no GPS server. There are broadcast-only satellites. And let me tell you, if my cellular phone is constantly transmitting my position to a government installation without a warrant, I’d probably sue the cellphone maker.

The rest of it seems silly. If you don’t want it, turn it off! Besides, it’s easy to be a luddite. I haven’t had a cellphone in two months, and it feels… good. I did buy an AM radio to listen to the cubbies yesterday. Much less disturbing to my fellow Metra travellers.

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One Response to Future Shock

  1. I can’t speak for lesser technologies, but for CDMA (IS-95 and derivatives) phones, there is indeed a GPS server. The handsets can do position determination two ways, either delay measurement from base stations, which themselves have GPS receivers, or by receiving GPS signals directly. The handsets lack the horsepower to do the computations themselves, so they forward the data to a server on the provider’s network which does it for them. Every phone I’ve encountered has a preference setting to either leave it on full-time, or to turn it off except when making a 911 call. I’m sure a provider could have firmware loaded into phones they sell which (silently) ignore that setting, possibly in response to a signal. Have they done this? I have no reason to believe so, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility. There has long been talk of location-based advertisements. I can easily envision carriers offering ad-subsidized service, which would mandate leaving GPS on. So this could happen anyways.

    Privacy is certainly not assured, so long as the battery is attached to the phone. Do with that what you will.

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