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Wireless phone tracking plans raise privacy hackles

Wireless phone companies tell regulators how they will meet controversial federal rules requiring them to pinpoint subscribers' locations, and the results are all over the map.

Make a call from a cell phone, and suddenly the phone company will know you're at your neighborhood bar.

Gartner analyst Scott Nelson says 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.

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Federal rules intended to allow wireless 911 distress calls to be pinpointed are prompting criticisms from privacy advocates and consumers worried about giving the big telecommunications companies the ability to track people's movements.

Wireless phone companies told regulators this week how they will meet the controversial federal requirements to find subscribers' locations, rekindling critics' privacy concerns.

"There are two sides to this," says Eddie Hold, a wireless analyst with research firm Current Analysis. "Every wireless user wants to call 911 and get a local service. But it's certainly going to be a privacy issue when you have the cell phone able to track you."

Some of the giant telephone companies will be putting Global Positioning System (GPS) chip technology inside their phones. Others will use a method that uses information such as the strength of a cell phone's signal. And some companies simply don't know yet how they will meet federal rules intended to allow wireless 911 distress calls to be pinpointed.

The still-young technology is shaping up as a key part of the infrastructure for wireless data companies, which want to use this location information to offer subscribers new services and advertisements.

But the move toward what some critics call Big Brother-like capabilities isn't the wireless network operators' doing. The regulation they're complying with was passed as policymakers responded to concerns that 911 calls made over cell phones were slower and less effective than ordinary calls, as they didn't automatically reach a nearby emergency service.

Advocates are looking for some specific safeguards, such as allowing the location information to be transmitted to the cell phone company only during 911 calls, or when the subscriber explicitly allows it by pushing a button on the phone.

While these policy issues get worked out, the communications companies are pondering what kind of technology they will need to meet federal requirements. The rules will require companies to be able to locate 911 calls to within about 100 feet.

Sprint PCS is planning to put GPS chips inside its handsets, which will require it to persuade as many consumers as possible to buy new phones. Cingular Wireless, the company being created out of BellSouth and SBC Communications, will use a similar technology for part of its footprint, but will use a "network based" approach for the rest.

Verizon Wireless says it, too, will use one of several network approaches, which involve judging a person's location from such data as signal strength and simple triangulation. AT&T says it needs more time to decide.

Fearful of new costs, and of developing features that wouldn't immediately turn into revenue, the telecommunications companies were initially skeptical of the government's mandate, analysts say. They dragged their heels, noting that the technology was expensive and difficult to implement.

But then along came the wireless Web, with its unrealized but potentially valuable set of new services. Suddenly the ability to locate subscribers looked better, as that information could be useful to advertisers or local businesses, and telecommunications companies started thinking better of the mandate.

The telephone and wireless data companies now cite myriad alleged benefits from the services aside from the simple 911 positioning. Consumers could dial up their banks, for example, which could then relay the position of ATMs closest to callers' locations.

Individual companies are working on advertising applications as well, which could relay coupons to consumers as they pass the region of a store, for instance.

But privacy advocates warn that consumers need to have some way of controlling this information, so they aren't entirely at the mercy of advertisers, or of law enforcement forces that want the location information for their own reasons.

The Privacy Foundation and others will be working to set some guidelines for how information can be used or collected along with federal regulators, and they hope to work with a new industry group dubbed the Location Inter-operability Forum.

"This is a big concern," said Richard Smith, chief technology officer at the Privacy Foundation. "But it's frustrating, because all of this seems premature. So much of this is still really hazy."