You need to know this location-tracking feature can be abused; and you may want to know if there is anything you can do to minimize the potential for such abuse.
First, know the sales points, as summarized in this glowing piece:
E-911 is the high-tech label for a federal mandate known as Enhanced 911 that requires all US wireless phone companies to begin offering improved location capabilities on their networks. This mandate is a response to a large number of emergency calls being made on cell phones. When 911 emergency calls are made from a landline, an address appears on an operator’s screen. However, if the call comes from a mobile phone, the 911 dispatcher cannot locate the position of the caller. Therefore, the FCC is now requiring wireless companies to accurately locate mobile 911 callers. Carriers will be required to have 100 percent of all new handsets able to provide location information by the end of 2002.So actually it's Enhanced 9/11, see? The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse offers more detail:
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The true value of cell phones has recently come to the forefront as we acknowledge the important part wireless communication played in our country's response to the September 11th terrorist attack. The compact size of cell phones has made them more convenient to carry in a pocket, and, now, with the ability to pinpoint a caller’s location, the cell phone can become a customized lifeline. Technology will be doing its part to enhance our feeling of security as the new e-911-enabled phones become standard during the next few years.
In the past, your general location could be verified by looking at your phone records to determine which tower was used to connect your call. Now, your location can often be pinpointed in real time if your phone is turned on. Most current-model phones now include Global Positioning System (GPS) chips, which can determine your coordinates by connecting to satellites.Your phone company wants to make extra money by giving you directions to the pizza parlor nearest to your current location and alerting you to nearby online friends you might want to hook up with; but the opportunity for abuse of this information is shown by this amusing but disturbing column in the Guardian (U.K.), "How I stalked my girlfriend":
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The FCC's E911 initiative requires cell phone carriers to be able to pinpoint their customers' location within 100 meters, so emergency responders can reach them in a crisis. However, phones with GPS chips can actually find you within a few feet. Ninety-five percent of cell phones must be E911 compliant by the end of 2005.
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Although the impetus behind location-based tracking was public safety, many companies are exploring commercial opportunities as well. Several companies now offer non-emergency tracking for a monthly fee (about $15-25).
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[M]any GPS-equipped phones have two settings: 911-only or location-on. You should examine your phone and select the appropriate setting for your personal needs.
The privacy policies of commercial location-tracking companies usually restrict their services to either the actual owner of the cell phone, the parent of the cell phone user or employer-owned phones.
For the past week I've been tracking my girlfriend through her mobile phone. I can see exactly where she is, at any time of day or night, within 150 yards, as long as her phone is on. It has been very interesting to find out about her day.Of course, there's even more to be concerned about, as reported on ZDNet:
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First I had to get hold of her phone. It wasn't difficult. We live together and she has no reason not to trust me, so she often leaves it lying around. And, after all, I only needed it for five minutes.
I unplugged her phone and took it upstairs to register it on a website I had been told about.
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Almost immediately, my girlfriend's phone vibrated with a new text message. "Ben Goldacre has requested to add you to their Buddy List! To accept, simply reply to this message with 'LOCATE'". I sent the requested reply. The phone vibrated again. A second text arrived: "WARNING: [this service] allows other people to know where you are. For your own safety make sure that you know who is locating you." I deleted both these text messages.
On the website, I see the familiar number in my list of "GSM devices" and I click "locate". A map appears of the area in which we live, with a person-shaped blob in the middle, roughly 100 yards from our home. The phone doesn't go off at all. There is no trace of what I'm doing on her phone. I can't quite believe my eyes: I knew that the police could do this, and telecommunications companies, but not any old random person with five minutes access to someone else's phone. I can't find anything in her mobile that could possibly let her know that I'm checking her location. As devious systems go, it's foolproof. I set up the website to track her at regular intervals, take a snapshot of her whereabouts automatically, every half hour, and plot her path on the map, so that I can view it at my leisure.
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If you have any reason to suspect that your phone might have been out of your sight, even for five minutes, and there is anyone who might want to track you: call your phone company and ask it to find out if there is a trace on your phone.
[T]he FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice have seized on the ability to locate a cellular customer and are using it to track Americans' whereabouts surreptitiously--even when there's no evidence of wrongdoing.Phone companies' cooperation in invasions of our privacy was described by The New York Times in a recent article, "Attention in N.S.A. Debate Turns to Telecom Industry." And remember that phone companies' use of this new location technology is currently only a matter of their own policies, not of laws (that might not be respected anyway). How many cell companies educate their customers adequately about E911 and the availability of phones with 911-only or location-on switchability, or offer customers a block on commercial location services? Is there a "back door" in your phone circuitry by which the company can turn location sending on, even if you have selected 911-only? Do you even know what mode your phone is in right now, or how to change it (if you can)?
A pair of court decisions in the last few weeks shows that judges are split on whether this is legal. One federal magistrate judge in Wisconsin on Jan. 17 ruled it was unlawful, but another nine days later in Louisiana decided that it was perfectly OK. Nobody is saying, of course, that police should be denied the ability to locate a felon-on-the-run in an actual emergency. Current law allows agents to do precisely that because there would be ample evidence of wrongdoing, or probable cause, that they can present to a judge.
The problem is that the Justice Department's current official position--a flip-flop from its previous official position--says police should be able to secretly monitor your whereabouts as long as they claim that tracking could possibly be "relevant" to some investigation. Not only is that insufficiently privacy-protective, it doesn't track what the law actually says.
UPDATE: Washington Post, 11/23/07:
Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects, according to judges and industry lawyers.So I guess this means "Justice" wants to make it impossible for individual cell phone users to select "911 only" emergency call broadcast of location data. I'm not so sure the coming end of the Bush reign of terror will stop this flood of surveillance. Remember, Clinton authorized Carnivore.
In some cases, judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime.
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And precise location data will be easier to get if the Federal Communication Commission adopts a Justice Department proposal to make the most detailed GPS data available automatically.
UPDATE: "The Spy In Your Hand" on Newsweek online:
Don't talk: your cell phone may be eavesdropping. Thanks to recent developments in "spy phone" software, a do-it-yourself spook can now wirelessly transfer a wiretapping program to any mobile phone. The programs are inexpensive, and the transfer requires no special skill. The would-be spy needs to get his hands on your phone to press keys authorizing the download, but it takes just a few minutes—about the time needed to download a ringtone.Read the rest here.
This new generation of -user-friendly spy-phone software has become widely available in the last year—and it confers stunning powers. The latest programs can silently turn on handset microphones even when no call is being made, allowing a spy to listen to voices in a room halfway around the world. Targets are none the wiser: neither call logs nor phone bills show records of the secretly transmitted data.