Commentary: Sprint's GPS technology creates privacy concerns

Sprint will face serious consumer concerns about how caller privacy will be affected by the inclusion of Global Positioning System technology in its wireless phones.

3 min read
By Scott Nelson, Gartner Analyst

As one of the first major telecommunications carriers to adopt federally mandated pinpointing technology for wireless calls, Sprint will face serious consumer concerns about how caller privacy will be affected by the inclusion of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology in its wireless phones.

See news story:
Wireless phone tracking plans raise privacy hackles
A federal mandate requires that all wireless service providers be able to pinpoint the location of a wireless 911 call within 100 feet by October 2001.

The problem for Sprint and the other wireless companies in the United States is that of balancing the need of emergency workers to pinpoint the location of a 911 caller--which is especially difficult when a call is placed outside the caller's home area--against the desire of callers to protect their privacy.

The potential for abuse is obvious. For example, an employee at the golf course on a workday would not want his boss to be able to use his mobile phone to find him. Most consumers, too, would be unhappy if information about their movements were used to develop precisely targeted marketing information concerning their personal habits.

Sprint says GPS information will be used only as required by law, to pinpoint the location of emergency calls. Nonetheless, the company will have to do much more than just saying that to reassure consumers and privacy advocates.

Gartner research shows that consumers' concerns about privacy run deep, even though they are often highly contradictory. Most commercial Web sites, for example, offer visitors specific ways of protecting their privacy--such as by declining information-gathering "cookies" or opting out of email lists--but few visitors take advantage of such options.

Despite that seemingly paradoxical view of privacy, carriers like Sprint must be very clear about why they are implementing such new technology. They must state that pinpointing technology is required by law and that it will protect people in emergency situations. Moreover, the carriers must inform the public about how they plan to protect callers' privacy.

Early adopters of pinpointing technology, such as Sprint, will inevitably become lightning rods for criticism from privacy advocates. These companies will probably never be able to completely alleviate privacy advocates' concerns, but by working proactively they should be able to avoid significant public relations damage.

Sprint's dilemma shows that while emerging technologies such as wireless and GPS may have value as consumer applications, companies marketing such technologies must recognize that there is an emotional component to consumers' responses to them and plan accordingly.

It is not enough to introduce a new technology and assume that consumers will automatically accept it. It is essential to recognize that consumers have serious and legitimate concerns about how new technologies may affect their lives.

(For related commentary on GPS technology, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

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