by Maureen Aylward
In the media the last few weeks, cell phone tracking systems in the iPhone and Google phones have been getting more and more press. We wanted to know what Zintro experts thought about it. Is it really an issue?
Ben Levitan, an expert in cell phones and GPS and one of the people who developed the technical standards for cell phones (the so called 3G and beyond), says that there is no problem with cell phone tracking, that it has been happening for years. “In 1994, the FCC ordered all cell phone companies to provide enhanced 911 services at the same level that is provided by land lines. I was one of the people who helped design this,” Levitan says. “The first system used triangulation and second generation used GPS. Today, the FCC rule says 911 has to be able to find someone within 50 meters 95 percent of the time.” The standard Levitan worked on lets the user block location or allows systems to see the location. “The only exception is 911 services. In the contract a user signs, it states that the user gives up his or her right to privacy when dialing 911,” he says.
Levitan says that the cell phone companies stalled the mandate as long as they could, but eventually complied because they realized they could sell location-based services using the system that the government forced them to implement. The big issue was how. The technical standard allowed for privacy settings, it was just a matter of figuring out parameters. For example, phone companies could charge auto clubs to locate the position of a stranded caller. In this case, the phone company makes money from the auto club. “The technical standard even allows only certain people like the auto club, parents, and friends to see where a user is while blocking everyone else,” explains Levitan. “Most cell phone companies can only tell what cell tower a user is attached to, and that’s about 2010 acres for a typical cell tower. Cell phone companies always know where cell phones are located so they can route calls to them. And, most people do not even have their GPS application turned on.”
Chizaram Ucheaga, an expert in providing security for mobile banking and mobile payment systems, says that cell phone tracking and location-based data collection are a concern for the industry: from the phone users to the phone manufacturers and marketing companies. “On the one hand, location-based data collection enables marketing companies to serve consumers content based on GPS coordinates,” he says. And some consumers might value that service. “On the other hand, users are concerned about what happens if their location-based data falls into the wrong hands.”
Ucheaga says that the way forward will be to enable users to easily opt-in or opt-out from such location-based services. Another option might be that phone manufacturers and marketing companies develop an enhanced mobile cloud service that has a compilation of relevant services for specific locations. “This might allow the user to anonymously search for information on areas of interest without having to tie it to their location,” he says. “The cloud will be the way to bring the best of both worlds to the user and service providers.”
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