The nation's cell phone service providers will soon know exactly where every one of their customers is, at all times, and privacy rights groups are asking what they plan to do with the information.
All U.S. carriers are under Federal Communications Commission orders to make it possible for police to locate cell phones calling 911, something police can't do now. Carriers plan to use the same systems to sell services like helping stranded motorists even if they don't know their location, or finding the closest restaurant.
Because people with cell phone generally always carry their phone with them, the FCC regulations give the thriving market for personal information something its never had a chance to get: the exact locations at all times of more than 140 million people.
"There are some things you don't mind other people knowing, but your location isn't one of them," said Gary Laden, a privacy program director for BBBOnline, a Better Business Bureau subsidiary.
Private details that become public knowledge every time people visit Web pages and leave information, every address that the U.S. government sells, or every ATM transaction that dutifully records the time are just some of the ways that technology has been tracking individuals. But knowing someone's location at all times adds a significant new twist to tracking information about people.
Sprint is already offering an Enhanced 911 (E911) system in Rhode Island and sells a pair of phones that work on the system. In a year, Verizon Wireless says nearly half of all new handsets activated will have this capability. The FCC expects 95 percent of the cell phones sold in the United States by 2005 will meet the FCC guidelines.
Neither AT&T Wireless nor Verizon Wireless offer any E911 or related services yet. But both say they do not sell the information they already collect from their subscribers, such as a home address used to send a monthly bill. And they don't plan to do anything different with the location information once they do offer those services.
"We already know where you live, but we haven't made that available to anyone," Verizon Wireless representative Nancy Stark said.
Travis Larson, a spokesman for the wireless trade group Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association said the worry isn't so much the carriers, but the independent companies that provide the commercial services.
"Not all companies in this space will be CTIA members," he said. "Then you have a group of businesses unregulated."
So far, backers of two consumer privacy initiatives say they've begun talks with carriers about what they plan to do with the information they collect.
On Wednesday, AT&T Wireless spokesman Ritch Blasi said the company is the first U.S. carrier to have its privacy policies reviewed and approved by Truste, a coalition that approves online privacy policies, whose sponsors include AT&T Wireless, AOL Time Warner, Intel, Microsoft and others.
Truste and AT&T Wireless are also working together to create a uniform policy for what carriers should do with the information they collect. Blasi and a spokesman for Truste said they want carriers to tell subscribers that their location can be tracked, and what plans, if any, they have for the information.
Also Wednesday, supporters of a recently approved privacy standard known as P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) say they've also begun a dialogue with wireless carriers.
Some versions of Microsoft's Internet Explorer use P3P to automate the process of deciding if a Web site's privacy policies are good enough for a user. People can pre-load their Web browsers with preferences, such as whether they want a Web site to accept a browser's cookies filled with personal information. If the browser is directed toward a Web page, it'll seek out the privacy policies and determine if they match the preferred ones. If not, the Web page doesn't load.
Josh Freed, a spokesman for the Internet Education Foundation, said backers of P3P want to offer the same type of function to cell phone customers. "This way, every time there is an exchange of data, the phone alerts you if there is a conflict," he said.
The effort is very new, Freed and others warn, and is preceding even the existing technology.
"We have a blank page in front of us now," said J. Walter Hyer, AT&T Wireless chief privacy officer.