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November 19, 2006

Social Mapping and Regulatory Failure [12:07 pm]

A little “thought experiment” from a recent workshop comes just a little bit closer — as well as the likely privacy train-wreck: Cellphone as Tracker: X Marks Your Doubts

Now, as more of the handsets are equipped to use the Global Positioning System, the satellite-based navigation network, we are on the verge of enjoying services made possible only when information is matched automatically to location. Maps on our phones will always know where we are. Our children can’t go missing. Movie listings will always be for the closest theaters; restaurant suggestions, organized by proximity. We will even have the option of choosing free cellphone service if we agree to accept ads focused on nearby businesses.

[...] Both Helio and Boost Mobile market exclusively and unapologetically to a young clientele. “We’re not going after soccer moms and businesspeople,” Helio’s C.E.O., the veteran entrepreneur Sky Dayton, said last week. Freedom — to be a hedonist — is the leitmotif in its materials. “Have a party,” Helio’s Web site says invitingly, “not a search party.”

The Buddy Beacon serves at your pleasure, for your pleasure. “Turn it on when you’re up for a party;” turn it off when you need “a night of privacy.” A press release anticipates your feeling the urge to “slip out the back of the club into the V.I.P. room.” (Yes! All the time!) In such instances, the beacon goes off.

Social mapping on cellphones is not all that new; it is just the next stage in social networking. [...]

[...] The tattered condition of the wireless industry’s reputation for privacy protection — which was not helped by the recent Hewlett-Packard pretexting scandal involving phone logs — is not entirely the industry’s doing. Not so long ago, industry players acted together to try to secure the Federal Communications Commission’s help to tighten — yes, tighten — rules governing the privacy of location information. It was the F.C.C. that let us all down, then and now.

[...] CTIA-The Wireless Association petitioned the F.C.C. to draft rules guaranteeing basic privacy protections, like requiring that customers give explicit consent before any information was disclosed to third parties and that all location information be protected from unauthorized access. When the F.C.C. considered the request in 2002, it declined to act, arguing that existing legislation was enough.

One commissioner, Michael J. Copps, dissented. [...]

Mr. Copps pleaded that the commission “put in some sweat now” to create the clarifying rules “before consumers make up their minds about whether they trust location practices.” His plea went unheeded; the F.C.C. has remained inert.

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