"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Can you see me now?

I like to think of myself as a fairly tech-savvy guy, as you might expect from someone with a career in broadcast engineering. My "data center" at home has five networked computers, all of which I built from scratch parts (with the exception of my laptop). I maintain two servers that are online 24/7, and love my pocket MP3 player.

This fondness for electronic gadgetry dates back to my childhood, when I would tear apart anything electric from lamps to radios in my dad's basement, just to see how they worked. Then I'd use the parts to build something completely different. I learned to solder when I was 12 years old.

So it might come as a surprise that I am a total Luddite when it comes to today's most modern and versatile gadget, the cell phone. I do not want a phone that is a clock, camera, calendar, web browser, map, walkie-talkie, music player, data center, photo album, video game, toaster oven, secret decoder ring, or whatever the hell else they're building into cell phones now. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I only want a device that will make and receive phone calls. Is that asking too much?

Apparently so, because each new generation of phones seems to contain more whizz-bang features than the last, whether we want them or not. I personally think this is a ploy on behalf of the service providers to get us to use more airtime. Anyone remember when wireless phones first came out, and what a novelty they were back then? You could make a telephone call while you were driving down the road! Wow! What a concept! In exchange for this miracle breakthrough in technology, we were willing to accept its limitations: the service was expensive, and call quality was poor, with frequent disconnects. Moreover, you had to be very stingy with your cell phone minutes back then, as airtime was limited and you'd get stuck with "roaming" charges of a dollar or so per minute if you ventured out of your local area.

Of course all that's different now, as wireless networks have added tremendously to their capacity in the last few years. Service costs less than half of what it used to, and most plans allow nearly unlimited nationwide calling with no roaming charges. So as a result, providers have had to come up with added services like custom ring tones, music downloads, photo sharing and the like in order to squeeze more money out of generate more revenue from their customers. Some folks, like me, merely don't care much for this; others think it's the source of all evil.

The latest ploy, which I have been following for a while, is to offer phones with embedded GPS locating devices to track the exact location of the phone's user and their immediate circle of friends. One reason for this trend is regulatory; the government (i.e., The Federal Communications Commission) has demanded that all cellular companies be able to provide 911 operators with the location of anyone calling on a cell phone so help can get to the right place. Companies can already do this to a certain degree by placing the user within the range of the nearest cell tower connecting them to the network. However, GPS provides a much greater level of detail, fixing the user's exact location on the planet within a couple of meters. From an article by Randall Stross in today's New York Times:
Two wireless providers recently made separate announcements about new positioning services. Two weeks ago, Helio -- a wireless service owned jointly by SK Telecom, a South Korean cellphone company, and Earthlink, the American Internet service provider --€” introduced the "Buddy Beacon" in its new phone, the Drift, which costs $225. With the press of a button, the Drift shows on a map the location of up to 25 friends, if each is also carrying a $225 Drift. Last week, Boost Mobile, a unit of Sprint, unveiled "Boost Loopt", a similar offering described as a "social mapping service"

The privacy implications of this are mind-bogglingly enormous. It's one thing for a parent concerned with safety to be able to track the location of their child, but do you want your spouse, boss, the government, or a stalker to know your exact position (both present and past) for every moment of the day? Buddy Beacon addresses this issue by making the user press a button on the phone when they choose to update their location, however Boost Loopt has a feature which automatically updates the user's position:

Boost Loopt's service has offered its first-generation users an option to automatically send current coordinates every 15 to 20 minutes. Anticipating potential security problems, it urges its users to admit only "good and trusted friends" into the closed circle that can follow their movements. Loopt suggests that all prospective invitees pass a number of tests of trustworthiness: Do you have their phone numbers? Do you know where they live and where they grew up? Would you lend them your car? Would you give them your house keys to feed your dog?
Isn't this a little much to ask of someone just to include them in your cell phone's address book?

The public is only vaguely aware of the trend toward these locator services, and legislation to control them is virtually nonexistent. According to the Times article, Dr. David Mark, a professor at SUNY-Buffalo who specializes in this issue, has said recently that it will probably take "a horrific incident involving a celebrity" before lawmakers pay attention. He also notes that when families adopt positioning cellphone services, a new problem will likely emerge: the very act of turning off one's location beacon may itself be seen as suspicious. "œIf you don't want your location known", Dr. Mark asks, "does that mean you intend to do something improper?"

A provocative question, and this is one reason why I'll keep my older cell phone, thank you very much, but want nothing to do with these so-called "advanced features". If you care about privacy and anonymity, this is some pretty scary shit.

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