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There are all sorts of interesting software for mobile phones these days. Consider this blurb for one of these new mobile applications: “Zhiing allows you to send your location, complete with a map, turn-by-turn directions, and a message to anyone with a cell phone. With zhiing you can even update your location on your favorite social network...”

Now, wouldn’t that be truly useful? After all, you can’t just tell your friends you’ll meet them at the nearest Starbucks, there are so many of those that such directions would be more confusing than helpful. Welcome the brave, new (geo-positioned) world of Location-Based Services.

Location-Based Services (“LBS” for short) usually run on high-end phones and cars equipped with GPS (Global Positioning System) hardware. They not only ensure that you won’t get lost, but will help you find your way to places you’ve never been to.

Of course, these systems are still new and their suggestions aren’t always the most practical. My car’s LBS always tells me to take EDSA instead of C5. Why? Because it knows that EDSA is a wider thoroughfare with more connections to more places. What the navigation program doesn’t know is that the volume of traffic along EDSA is much heavier and I’d really prefer to take the roundabout route via C5. So I’ll just ignore my car’s advice until the MMDA finds a way to feed it up- to-the-minute traffic info.

Meantime, while few will have cars equipped with global positioning hardware and location-based software, many now use phones that already have these built in. If you own a Blackberry or an iPhone, then in addition to checking your e-mail while on the go, you can also add a trailing sig to your message that tells people where you were when you sent it out.

Many major websites such as Google (Gmail) and Yahoo! also offer location-based services. Currently, the favorite location-based website is Foursquare, which can automatically publish your location on Facebook and Twitter. Some restaurants have taken notice and will even give discounts to the ‘mayor’ of their venue, that is, whoever checks in at their establishment most often using Foursquare. Cool? Maybe.

Your phone doesn’t need to have GPS in order for location-based services to work. Many mobile LBS apps will work just fine using triangulation. Triangulation can provide a good estimate of your position in relation to nearby cell sites. The telcos used this to market a triangulation-based service as a way of tracking your kids through the phones they carry. Then there’s the recent furor over Apple’s iPhones and iPads using either GPS or triangulation to record your whereabouts, along with a history of where you’ve been. Were you aware of this?

But You Can’t Hide
Be aware that location-based technology can be abused. This raises the specter of the dark side of tracking. Do you really want people to know where you are and where you’ve been? Some governments think so.

The City of Beijing has considered making location-based tracking mandatory, supposedly for traffic control. The local LTO likewise used traffic amelioration as a reason for issuing RFID tags. Is traffic the only thing they want to control?

It isn’t just governments that are getting nosy. Even before LBS on phones, one local manufacturer was selling a GSM device that would help delivery fleet owners track their trucks. As it turns out, these tracking devices sold very well indeed—to folks installing them on their spouse’s SUVs. A local politico was able to track his girlfriend’s comings and goings using ‘old tech’ triangulation. And abroad, Koreans have complained about employers tracking their movements through company-supplied phones.

So, if you think you’re safe because you’re using an older, not-so-smart phone, remember that you can be tracked even if your phone doesn’t have GPS. Will you, in fact, be tracked? That depends on how interested some people (the government, your spouse, perhaps even your business rivals) are about your whereabouts. But if someone really wants to find you, you can’t hide, not forever. Even Osama bin Laden, who banned the use of phones and Internet at his fortress, was eventually found.

Is this the first you’ve heard about location-based tech concerns? You are not alone. While there’s a clear need to update laws to protect location privacy, the concept is so new that it will take time for awareness and regulations to catch up.

In the meantime, you can make careful, considered choices about LBS and how you expose your location. Is it really a good idea to tweet or check in at every place you go to? Even if you like the bragging rights that come with being the ‘mayor’ of a fancy restaurant, do you really want everyone to know where you hang out?

Some of you may remember the time you were shocked by a huge phone bill when you started using a high-end phone. The telcos will hardly be sympathetic. They’ll tell you that it was your fault because you didn’t take the trouble to learn how to properly use all the features of your new gadget. So, learn your tech. Take the time to study new features, and make careful decisions about your privacy and how you use technology.

Print ed: 06/11

 

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