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Wireless networks are watching you

Location-based technology promises great boons for business and the public good -- but some consumers are still concerned about it infringing on their privacy.

Mention location-based technology and people will either come up with a thousand useful and productive ways it can be applied in both the business and consumer areas, or denounce it as yet another example of how computers are snipping away at our personal privacy and humanity.

We were in a department store the other day, for example, when a mother frantically raced by us screaming out her seven-year-old daughter's name, who had suddenly vanished from her side while she was immersed in selecting new pots and pans. If that daughter had a cell phone with GPS tracking, that mother -- or even the store -- could have theoretically used it to pinpoint that little girl's location to within 10 to 20 feet. The mother could have just called the little girl on the phone, but if she were in any real trouble -- fortunately she was not and decided to wander over when she became bored with kitchen utensils -- then she may not have been able to answer the call, so localized GPS would have come in handy to locate her.

Critics of such systems, however, claim that any kind of electronic tracking is an invasion of privacy and are dead set against the widespread use or further development of such systems. Years ago, we had the opportunity to speak to the developer of the Lo-Jack automobile tracking systems, which is presently used by a number of police departments worldwide to track and locate stolen vehicles. The system relies on a passive transmitter that is installed somewhere within the bowels of automobile -- the installer is the only person who knows exactly where this device is located -- and is activated by the police once a vehicle is reported stolen.

Once activated, the transmitter emits a unique beacon that can be traced by specially-equipped police cars. The system works because we once tried to outwit it by hiding in a Lo-Jack test car three levels below in a concrete parking garage. We were located in roughly 10 minutes. The benefit of this system, when used in automobiles, is that a car can possibly be located soon after it is stolen. Consumers who use the system can also get the more immediate benefit of a lower car insurance bill each year.

A theoretically negative aspect of the Lo-Jack system is that if, for example, a bank is robbed and witnesses report spotting a red car in or around the scene of the crime, then the police can turn on all of the wireless systems embedded within red cars in that particular area and quite possible narrow the field of suspects. Police say, of course, that this would never happen and the developers of the system tell us it wouldn't even be feasible. But, this hasn't stopped the naysayers from criticizing the technology.

When Lo-Jack was first unveiled and demonstrated, one of the developers hypothesized that the technology might even be extended to children. Hide a transmitter somewhere on a child's person, for example -- embedded in a heel or belt buckle -- and this person might be located should he or she go missing or be the victim of foul play. As expected, the backlash from this proposal was instantaneous and nearly unanimous: People should not be tracked with technology, and systems should not be developed that create an "audit trail" of movement and location.

Fast forward roughly more than 20 years to today and we are definitely in a different and more technology-tolerant world. We have Wi-Fi systems that can be tweaked to report if we are within the confines of a specific network, cameras recording or every move, digital imaging systems that broadcast information wirelessly through the Internet and back to a database to match facial patterns, and cell phones with embedded digital cameras (for capturing information) and GPS systems that do relay our current position in the world. Using wireless technology and personalization software, we also know our proximity to the people who are inserted into our "buddy lists", and at the recent CTIA Wireless 2004 in Atlanta there was even talk of embedding nascent technology into cell phones that would immediately spring to life at the touch of a "panic button" to alert police and other officials in the event of an emergency (an interesting concept, considering roughly 40% of the 154 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. are young people ages 11 to 24 years).

So, does the advent of all this snooping technology and wireless chaperoning mean we have given up a bit of our personal freedom in exchange for more security and perhaps a little more peace of mind? You bet! The critics who argue against using wireless technology to build better invisible fences, or quickly locate somebody who is in trouble, could be compared to opponents of automobile seat belts -- many of whom claim they should be the ones to make the decision to buckle up and not be forced to do so by state or federal officials.

Sure, there are instances where wireless tracking technology might be out to unethical or at least questionable use. Some independent snow plow drivers this past winter in Massachusetts, for example, balked at carrying GPS-equipped wireless phones because they were concerned the state would constantly track their whereabouts during storms and perhaps base payment on movement within a signed location and not the actual job at hand. The state countered that the devices were offered for security, and to improve and streamline the billing process -- which, but the way, cost the state millions each year.

Critics also say that RFID tagging and embedded sensing will quickly evolve from its current passive and non-intrusive state, to a level where everything is tagged (including people) and is transmitting location information to a central location. This may take some time, however, since the RFID area is rife with multiple standards, incompatibility among devices, and a fair degree of conflicting politics. Still, the day may not be to far when it will be possible to know exactly where you are reading that library copy of Catcher in the Rye, because of the spread of multiple, pervasive and overlapping wireless networks.

Vocera Communications, based in Cupertino, CA, already offers a Star Trek-like badge device that can be used for wireless voice-over IP (VoIP) discussions over 802.11 Wi-Fi networks. Since each badge emits a Wi-Fi signal and specific address, the radio frequency of each device and the wearer can easily be tracked by using a handful of available wireless network management and control solutions. Not surprisingly, users in the health care field love the technology since it allows doctors and nurses immediate and hands-free communications, and typically saves each health care unit 3,400 hours per year or $74,000 per unit, according to ROI figure released by the firm. By actively tagging expensive pieces of equipment with Wi-Fi transmitters, some hospitals also save an average of $100,000 per year in time spent looking for this equipment, or in preventing the actual theft of that equipment.

A long-time privacy watchers, we are obviously concerned about using technology to chip away at personal privacy and planned and emerging devices that embed technology that make it easier to find where you are and send that information out over the ether to another party. But, this is a whole different world we live in today, and unfortunately it seems we have to give up a little of our personal freedoms in order to beef up security and maybe limit the possibility that we will veer into harm's way.

Critics may point to the alleged negative aspects of location-based services, and claim there is the potential for abuse and misuse. We can't dispute this fact, and think that such services will undoubtedly result in all sorts of annoying and disruptive attacks on our personal space. But, the positive aspects of location-based technology -- including its ability to enhance personal safety and improve security -- far outweigh the negative potentials.

At CTIA last week, for example, we ran into an executive from Bell Labs who is a member of an all-volunteer team of more than 1,000 scientists, engineers and others who use sophisticated wireless tracking technology and programs they have developed to find people who are involved in catastrophes or life-threatening events. This team, called the Wireless Emergency Response Team was formed to help find victims in the rubble of New York's World Trade Center following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. They did this by sniffing for weak and almost imperceptible cellular telephone signals from phones that were broadcasting during the attack and subsequent collapse of both WTC towers (hundreds of people were apparently using their phones at the time of the attack and had little time to switch them off as the tragic vent unfolded and came to a cataclysmic end).

Incredibly, a number of people were located by tracking and following the cellular signals from their phones, we are told, even though the system was pulled together very rapidly and was relatively crude. Today, the group is more organized and works directly with Homeland Security and others to provide fast-response services worldwide. In fact, the volunteer organization provided services immediately following the recent terrorist attack on the train system in Spain, helping to locate victims in the hours after bombs ripped through several trains.

The point is that as wireless networks become more sophisticated and pervasive, and location-based technologies more able to quickly and accurately pinpoint an individual's whereabouts, it will result in a safer and more proactive environment. Sure, personal liberties may be reduced and there is the potential for abuse, but this is the price we must pay to live in a more secure world.

Tim Scannell is the president and chief analyst with Shoreline Research, a Quincy, Mass.-based consulting company specializing in mobile and wireless technology and initiatives. Shoreline works with end users, looking to implement mobile solutions, and vendors, developing new products and seeking business and customer opportunities. The company also specializes in training and strategic planning projects. For more information on Shoreline Research and the company's strategic services please go to

This was last published in April 2006

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