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"Wireless Privacy Concerns Angering Consumer Groups"
  12/01/2000

The vast majority of cell phone users want to call 911 and receive a local operator, but it is becoming a privacy issue as the companies are intending to track your call. New Federal rules, that were originally intended to allow wireless 911 distress calls to be pinpointed, are prompting criticisms from privacy advocates and consumers. They are concerned about giving the wireless telecommunications companies Big Brother-like capabilities.

At this time, some of the telecommunications companies, such as Sprint PCS, are already planning to place GPS chip technology inside their cell phones. Cingular Wireless, the company that is being created out of BellSouth and SBC Communications, and Verizon Wireless will use one of several network approaches, which basically involve judging a person's location from data such as signal strength. AT&T has yet to decide how they will meet federal rules intended to allow wireless 911 distress calls to be pinpointed. This type of technology might be a key part of the infrastructure for wireless data companies, which want to use this location information to offer subscribers advertisements and new services.

Until the wireless Web evolved, most telecommunications companies didn't want to develop the technology required by the government ruling. They continued to balk at any new features as they were expensive to add and many times difficult to implement especially when they could not find additional revenue in the venture. However, as the wireless Web is becoming common, they have determined they could use the tracking information to target advertisements to the cell phone users thereby creating a new revenue stream. For example, they could send a coupon to a cell phone when the user is near a certain department store. They are also contemplating additional service fees from consumers for personalized information such as banking information and stock trades.

Advocates of the technology are asking for safeguards that would allow the user of the cell phone to remain anonymous unless they call 911. Another option would be to allow it only when the caller allows their whereabouts to be known by pushing a certain key combination or a specific button on the phone. While there remain disagreements between companies and privacy groups, the rules will require companies to be able to place the calls to within about 100 feet. With this type of accuracy, it may be sometime before we get a clear-cut resolution.

If cell phone users want local 911 calling to become a reality, they may have to give a little in their efforts to protect their privacy. Proponents warn that consumers need to have some way of controlling this information. They counter that the end user should not have their whereabouts displayed unless they are willing to do so. The
Privacy Foundation and other groups will be working to set some guidelines for how and what information can be collected and used.

  - by Clayton Crooks

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  alt.cellular.*
  alt.internet.wireless
  alt.privacy