WASHINGTON—For better or for worse, it's rapidly getting easier for others to know where you are, sometimes 24/7.
Thanks to the explosive spread of wireless technology—particularly cell phones, car navigation systems and global-positioning systems (GPS)—parents, employers, detectives and government agents can track your movements, with or without your being aware of it.
Many people don't realize that a cell phone, Blackberry or wireless laptop computer is constantly broadcasting its location whenever its power is on, whether or not a call is in progress.
This has led to "a new, unique ability to automatically identify somebody's location," Jed Rice, vice president of Skyhook Wireless Inc., a three-year-old location-system provider based in Boston, told a group of congressional aides last week. "This obviously raises privacy issues."
"The type of location tracking possible in the 21st century is quite different from anything previously available to government agents," the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology warned in a February report.
More than 214 million Americans—2 out of 3—are wireless subscribers, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, the wireless trade organization.
In addition, more than a million cars and trucks are equipped with on-board location devices, such as the OnStar system that's available on many General Motors and some Acura and Isuzu vehicles. OnStar provides drivers with navigation maps, handles phone calls and sends signals if vehicles are involved in emergencies.
Several state transportation departments are beginning to monitor wireless devices in moving cars in order to detect traffic slowdowns and issue advisories to drivers.
While some people worry that their privacy is being compromised by the new wireless technology, others, especially young people, happily trade their whereabouts with their friends.
"People in their 40s don't want people to know where they're at," said Jim Smolen, the vice president of WaveMarket, a location-software company in Emeryville, Calif. "But 12- to-25-year-olds want EVERYBODY to know where they're at."
Three basic techniques can be used to determine the location of a wireless phone or laptop within 20 or so yards:
_GPS compares the timing of radio signals from three or four satellites in space.
_Triangulation collects directional signals from two or three cell phone towers.
_Wi-Fi local area networks track high-frequency radio signals from millions of transmitters in urban areas.
"There are 40 million Wi-Fi access points—500,000 in downtown Chicago alone," Rice said. "We know where they are, (but) we have no record of who you are. The information is anonymous."
A growing number of companies sell tracking services.
In April, WaveMarket launched a "Family Locator" service that lets a parent pinpoint the whereabouts of a child using Sprint or Nextel cell phones.
Sprint sells a "Mobile Locator" service that it says can "monitor employee location in real-time, either singly or within a group, on a zoomable online map."
Trucking companies use GPS technology to track the movements of their drivers. The boss knows when a driver takes a break, violates the speed limit or departs from his unauthorized route.
John Morris, a privacy expert at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told about a rental van company that tracked a driver going 80 miles per hour. "They charged him three $150 fines," Morris said.
In its report, the center acknowledged that location information is valuable for law enforcement and intelligence purposes.
"With newer technologies, tracking can be done automatically by a remote computer, making it possible for law enforcement to monitor the movements of many more people for longer periods of time," the report said. But it cautioned that tracking "reveals sensitive information about a person that may have no relation to criminal activity."
The federal privacy laws that cover common carriers, which handle traditional telephone calls over landlines, don't cover most wireless communications. Wireless companies set their own privacy policies.
"There are no (government) rules that apply to us," said Skyhook's Rice. "We're not a common carrier."
An exception is emergency calls to a 911 number. Federal regulations require that a wireless company be able to locate callers who dial 911 so they can be helped.
Some labor unions and privacy experts have objected to the Big Brother implications of location tracking.
"One might think it does not matter if their employer knows that he goes to Starbucks every morning before work or that they spend Sundays at his girlfriend's house," the National Workforce Institute, a nonprofit training organization based in Austin, Texas, declared in a recent policy paper.
"If someone has the ability to know the real-time location of a person around the clock," the statement said, "they learn everything about that person, much of which is highly personal and private in nature."
(For more information: www.ctia.org)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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