Wireless location tracking draws privacy questions

Electronic devices can track your children and serve up maps, restaurant recommendations. But are privacy laws keeping up?

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Wireless products that can do everything from tracking your children to finding you a nearby date this weekend seem to fall outside the scope of federal privacy laws, and that may need to change, an industry group said.

At a panel discussion hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, which aims at informing legislative aides, a wireless industry representative on Tuesday said he's concerned that many products that use geographic location technology, such as those found in cars, aren't being held to the same standards as traditional wireless phone carriers.

"We're going to see in the next year pretty much all of the national wireless carriers deploy handsets that work on licensed commercial spectrum and also work off Wi-Fi hot spots," said Michael Altschul, general counsel to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), an international trade association representing wireless carriers, suppliers and providers of wireless services. "I don't want a customer who starts a call in a Starbucks using a Wi-Fi hot spot, then steps outside and the call is handed off to a commercial mobile service, to have different privacy expectations."

Altschul was referring to Section 222 of the Communications Act, added in 1999, which specifies that "telecommunications carriers" must adhere to certain safeguards of their subscribers' personal information and call records.

Reacting to concerns over a new federal requirement that cell phone carriers install geographic-tracking technology in order for 911 dispatchers to pinpoint their calls, CTIA in 2000 petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (click for PDF) to adopt new privacy rules dealing specifically with geographic location information.

The wireless industry reasoned that providing consumers with a "uniform set of expectations as to how their privacy rights would be protected" would be good for business, speeding the emergence of new, location-based services in the marketplace, Altschul said. But the FCC in 2002 rejected that proposal--which had drawn support from privacy advocates--and concluded that existing law contained clear enough legal obligations.

Jed Rice, a vice president with Skyhook Wireless, which develops software that uses Wi-Fi to pinpoint a person's location, readily admitted at Tuesday's discussion that his company is not subject to federal regulations. Skyhook makes a piece of free software that uses Wi-Fi hot spots to triangulate a user's location within 20 meters and then tailors search results to that spot. Rice emphasized that his company has "no record of who you are," and every user remains "completely anonymous."

"That doesn't mean we're not proactively getting involved to try and look at, if not federal regulations, at least what standards are set by watchdog groups and people who are very interested in issues about privacy," he said.

By contrast, Jim Smolen, a vice president at WaveMarket, which offers geographic locator software for keeping track of family members and friends in partnership with wireless phone carriers, said he thought his company would be "indirectly governed" by existing laws covering those companies.

Altschul said CTIA didn't have any plans to proposition federal regulators again, explaining that he wasn't optimistic that the FCC would be "any more open to the idea than they were then." The industry has gone on to voluntarily adopt its own set of privacy standards, which include notifying consumers of what sort of geographic information will be collected and receiving their consent prior to doing so.

Meanwhile, the controversy over location tracking doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.

With more and more local governments showing interest in blanketing their areas with wireless networks, Altschul's concerns could have broader implications. For instance, a Google plan to provide free Wi-Fi to San Francisco residents gave pause to privacy advocates recently when the company revealed it planned to use geographic data to tailor advertising to users, unless they pay for a faster service from EarthLink.

A related situation, not addressed by Tuesday's panelists, involves cell phone tracking by police agencies and investigators. At the time that a 1994 surveillance law known as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, better known as CALEA, was passed, FBI officials said they wouldn't use the law to track mobile phones.

But court cases in recent years have demonstrated that breed of investigative tactic has been occurring--and judges have been divided on how to view such tracking. One federal judge in New York ruled last December that federal police could monitor the location of Americans by constantly tracking their cell phone signal without providing evidence of criminal activity. But two earlier decisions delivered an opposite conclusion.