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Cellphone Tracking Services: Friend Finder Or Big Brother?

Publication Date: 
May 01, 2009
Source: 
The Christian Science Monitor
Author: 
Michael B. Farrell

Lecturer in Law and Executive Director of the Center for Internet and Society Lauren Gelman and Center for Internet and Society Resideential Fellow M. Ryan Calo are quoted in The Christian Science Monitor in an article about the privacy implications of GPS-equipped mobile phones:

Technology soon caught up with the idea. Today his company, Loopt, has more than 1 million users and is one of the most popular services to allow people to track their friends via their smart phones. And with more cellphones now equipped with GPS, other services such as Google Latitude are collecting location data from scores of users and broadcasting that information through phone networks or the Internet.

Such tracking services offer a great way for people stay connected – and can be a boon for parents – but their proliferation also has privacy advocates biting their nails. As companies forge into largely uncharted areas of tracking and recording customer locations, many worry that consumers won’t be able to ensure that their private information – such as their whereabouts on a given day – is being safeguarded, especially from advertisers.

“How are we going to get all the benefits that come from doing geo-location without sacrificing people’s privacy?” asks Lauren Gelman, executive director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society (CIS).

Ms. Gelman and other privacy experts caution that when users allow companies to track their locations, third parties – such as the government, litigants, and advertisers – can potentially tap into that data. “If you have the information, someone is going to come asking for it.”

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Services that keep tabs on your every move do seem a bit “creepy,” admits Ryan Calo, a residential fellow at CIS and an expert on electronic privacy issues. But, he says, while they could potentially lead to some criminal wrongdoing, he doesn’t think “location based services are going to play into that dynamic…. [I]n the bulk of cases, this tool is going to be used by people who already have a relationship to augment that relationship.”

Some tracking services, for example, allow family members keep track of each other or parents to keep an eye on their children.

Much of what’s driving the growth of mobile social networking or geo-locating services, says Mr. Calo, is the fact that “location data is really salient. It really matters to an individual to find things around them and really matters to advertisers to connect with people.”