Location information could invade wireless privacy

Worries about loss of privacy over wireless devices will rock the budding wireless industry, analysts and users warned Wednesday.

“I think there are huge land mines with wireless ahead,” said Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington D.C., a public interest group that works with industry and government on social issues involving technology. The issue is especially acute with wireless vendors preparing location-based applications that will allow carriers and marketers to track where users are and send them alerts about sales on travel or personal goods, he said.

Compared to the privacy uproar over the wired Internet of recent years, privacy concerns over wireless will be “exponentially bigger,” Davidson said at a conference of the Personal Communications Industry Association in Chicago.

“The first time somebody steals location information on the whereabouts of a kid and he goes missing, there will be a backlash and lawsuits,” he added. Or a phone company employee could have a crush on a woman with a cell phone and use the purloined data to follow her around, he said.

While vendors downplayed the potential hazards of location-based services, market analysts Risto Perttunen and William J. Passmore of McKinsey & Co. in Helsinki, Finland, and Washington, said the concerns are real and the industry isn’t addressing the issue sufficiently.

“People have not realized the value of location services and have not realized the loss of privacy involved,” Perttunen said.

For a company considering rolling out wireless applications to consumers or workers, having the ability to track the whereabouts of customers or employees will require a higher level of corporate readiness, Passmore said. “Companies need to realize they will be scrutinized by all sorts of groups, and it will become a big issue,” he said.

Several vendors on one panel suggested that users can be given the ability to shut off carrier collection of wireless location data and that consumers will have to be taught how to do this.

But getting privacy on a wired Web site would fill up a computer screen with information that wouldn’t be practical to send over a phone with a tiny screen, said Nuala O’Connor, deputy general counsel of DoubleClick.net in New York. DoubleClick is talking to phone makers and carriers about putting privacy protections in place when users buy phones, she said.

The Federal Communications Commission has set Oct. 1, 2001 as the deadline for carriers to provide location services for wireless phones, which would be valuable to public safety officials for emergency 911 calls from cell phones to find someone lost or injured in a car crash. Ironically, the public safety protections of that FCC provision could cause privacy and safety concerns of their own, some analysts said.

“We ought to build systems that encourage 911 location services but that are not just personal tracking systems,” Davidson said. The location of a wireless user could fall into the hands of the police, threatening the innocent, he added.

“I’m not even so much concerned about my safety but my privacy if a wireless company can monitor where I travel every day,” said Ralph Kinney, chief operations officer at R Systems Inc. in El Dorado Hills, Calif., a wireless consulting firm. He said his business customers that are building wireless applications are coming to him with “worries about liability” if something went wrong with location information. “It’s possibly an Orwellian scenario,” he said.