Privacy Watch: Soon, Your Cell Phone May Be Tracking You

Illustration: Christoph Nieman
It's been ten years since engineers, innovating by the seat of their pants, triangulated the signal of O. J. Simpson's cell phone to his Bronco, rolling down a Los Angeles freeway. But now, tracking a cell phone is becoming as easy as point and click.

Services just beginning to appear will allow people to keep track of the location, within a few dozen feet, of a mobile phone handset. For now, the technology works on only a few models of cell phones, including several units sold by Sprint, Verizon, and Nextel, that have built-in Global Positioning System capability. (Handset makers are starting to include GPS chips to help emergency workers find people who dial 911 on their cell phones.) But more and more new phones will include this tracking technology.

ULocate is among the first of the new cell phone tracking services. Once you sign up (ULocate works only with a few Motorola phones that use Nextel's service), you can find a phone's last known location, see the path it has traveled, and get the average speed at which it moved from one place to another. As long as the phone has a view of the sky--so it can communicate with GPS satellites--it will send ULocate a location update every 2 minutes.

ULocate's policy states that you can use the service only on your own phone or on phones used by your family members or by employees of your company. Software must be loaded onto the phone itself before the company can start following the handset. The phone displays an icon on its screen when tracking is working.

I can certainly see the benefits of the technology. Nervous parents could gain some peace of mind by being able to see where their cell phonea??equipped teenager is. And businesses that dispatched workers off-site to a job could see their locations at a glance.

But even with all the safeguards ULocate has put in place, it's not hard to imagine ways in which cell phone tracking could invade your privacy. A jealous husband could give his wife a cell phone with tracking already enabled. Police might try to obtain tracking data for an investigation, or just to issue speeding tickets after the fact. As with a lot of new technology, the law has few rules to govern who can legally obtain cell phone tracking data. And we haven't even begun to explore the possibilities of malicious hackers turning their attention to this latest generation of phones.

Phone service providers, sensitive to these privacy issues, all reassured me that any phone with a GPS chip in it lets you disable the tracking features (though the option is usually buried in the phone's settings menu). That's great if you spend much time probing your phone's menu system. But if you don't, your phone may reveal much more about you than your taste in ring tones.

Andrew Brandt
Andrew Brandt is senior associate editor for PC World. You can e-mail him at privacywatch@pcworld.com.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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