Cell Phone vs. Privacy We can already use cell phones to get the latest news, sports and stocks, and a lot of phones incorporate GPS, the Global Positioning System. As technology is becoming more and more sophisticated, guests consider how this technology impacts your privacy.  
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Cell Phone vs. Privacy

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Cell Phone vs. Privacy

Cell Phone vs. Privacy

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

You already know your cell phone can send text messages and e-mails, take photos, and of course even make the occasional phone call. Well, that same mobile phone outfitted with a small built-in computer chip can also pinpoint exactly where you are, and it can send that location to the nearest taxi, to a potential date in the bar next door, or to Starbucks, which then might e-mail you with a coupon for a venti latte.

The technology already exists. It combines wireless technology with GPS, the Global Positioning Satellite System. But until recently most wireless companies shied away from it out of fears over privacy. Now some are betting that customers will be more excited about the benefits than the worry about who might know where they are. And with wireless phone carriers soon to be required by law to use technology like GPS to report your location when you dial 911, more and more phones will be equipped with this mapping technology.

Later on in this hour, America's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, announces his resignation, and we'll take the temperature of Major League Baseball's Hot Stove League.

But first, convenience versus privacy. Do you use your cell phone to track your location, to find nearby friends, to send yourself reminders when you get to the grocery store? Or if you haven't jumped on the location-based bandwagon, would you? Tell us why or why not. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

We begin with Randall Stross. He writes the “Digital Domain” column for The New York Times, and he joins us now from a studio at Stanford University in Stanford, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Professor RANDALL STROSS (Columnist, The New York Times): Thank you.

CONAN: Give us an example of how this technology works and what it's capable of.

Prof. STROSS: The availability of tracking has actually been around for quite awhile, and as a society, we haven't objected to its use when the person being tracked is being tracked involuntarily. So we have examples of employers giving employees cell phones that have GPS tracking, we have parents giving children cell phones that can be tracked, and we haven't raised an eyebrow at such use. It's...

CONAN: And in fact, some of those ankle bracelets that they put on prisoners who are being held in home arrest and are not allowed to leave their house - those use GPS technology, too.

Prof. STROSS: And we welcome that use of the technology. What is creating a little bit of a stir now is the announcement this past month of two major carriers offering a service that will allow us to voluntarily track one another. Their use is rather limited. In the case of the cell phone carrier Helio, you must have a certain kind of cell phone, and the people being tracked also to have a similar phone. So to mutually track one another, you all have to have a brand-new phone of a certain type and equipped with certain GPS capabilities.

CONAN: And with a certain price tag, of course.

Prof. STROSS: And a very high price tag. And the question is - is this leading us down a slippery slope where we willing, voluntarily, embrace a technology that will lead to a surveillance society?

CONAN: And there are all kinds of questions about this. And there's another service, Verizon - we're seeing ads on this on TV already - you can put up a map on your cell phone. It'll show you exactly where you are.

Prof. STROSS: Indeed, and that is a pretty innocuous service. I welcome that myself. One of the things that Google offers now is a map, on many kinds of cell phones, that will give you updated traffic information. It is not necessarily using GPS technology. It uses cruder technologies, such as highway patrol traffic reports.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STROSS: So here's a question: Would we all be better off with really current, real-time traffic flow information? There are companies out there that are eager to work with the wireless carriers to capture that information, based on the signals that our cell phones are constantly giving out. And would we be uncomfortable being tracked anonymously for the greater good of really accurate, real-time traffic information?

CONAN: Mm-hmm, and the benefits might include all kinds of things. Yes, you can keep track of your kids.

Prof. STROSS: You could. As you mentioned at the beginning, you could also be offered advertising deals. One of the great quests from the great dot-com boom of 2000 was M-Commerce, and there was great excitement at the time.

CONAN: M for mobile.

Prof. STROSS: M for mobile, correct. The idea would be why inefficiently send advertising that you might not be ready for, that if the advertiser knew where you were and had an idea of what you might want to see, the advertising could be very targeted.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Prof. STROSS: And this has been a goal of advertisers for a number of years now, but they have to put us at ease.

CONAN: Is there any prospect of sort of, you know, integrating any number of these things? Now we all know that some new cars have the ability to e-mail us when various servicing things are required or they - but could, you know, in the not to distant future, you get an e-mail on your phone that says your car tells us it needs an oil change. Stop by at Jiffy Lube three blocks ahead on your left.

Prof. STROSS: The technology is there. The question is would be uncomfortable with that kind of message?

CONAN: Let's find out: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is Florida.

TINA (Caller): Hi, I just wanted to comment that, you know, in working with people that are victims of domestic violence, I can see this being a major concern and that it even concerns me that they might give up having a cell phone altogether.

CONAN: Randall Stross, wouldn't this enable stalkers to know where the person of their - the object of their obsession is located?

Prof. STROSS: This is precisely why Boost Mobile, which is one of the two companies that announced new services last month, has a long checklist of questions you should ask before you add a particular person to your list of people who will know where your location is.

An example that Verizon Wireless offered to me when I spoke with them about why they did not yet offer this location tracking service was a similar sort of case. The spokesperson said suppose your 16-year-old daughter, who might give her e-mail address out to someone she shouldn't, the worst that can happen is she has to change her e-mail address. But suppose she hands it out to someone - or suppose she puts on her list of participating friends who can see her location someone who should not - someone who is a stalker who would mean her ill. That's not so easily remedied.

CONAN: And it might be somebody she included initially and then thought better of later.

Prof. STROSS: Exactly, and that's why Verizon says we are going very slowly on this.

CONAN: Tina, good point. Thanks very much.

TINA: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Let's go to - this is John, John calling us from Grand Rapids in Michigan.

JOHN (Caller): Hi.


JOHN: I work on a suicide crisis line, and we frequently get calls from cell phones from people, and they are in trouble but they don't know where they are. It would be a wonderful thing for emergency services like 911, emergency rooms, or lines like ours to be able to say, hey, they're in this location.

CONAN: Well, Randall Stross, as I understand it, the law requires that all phones be able to report to 911 where the phone is.

Prof. STROSS: That is the case. The Wireless Communication and Public Safety Act of 1999 mandated that the industry adopt cell phones that were capable of sending their location for 911 calls. Now the caller's example raises a little question. If someone calls a suicide hotline but is not calling through 911, how would that call be treated? I'm curious.

JOHN: Well, normally -

Prof. STROSS: Is it kind of equivalent to a 911 call?

JOHN: What?

Prof. STROSS: Would that be treated as equivalent to a 911 call?

JOHN: Yes.


JOHN: If they call in there, we assume that they're going - they may need help at some point and we do everything within our power to get it. And they don't come through 911. They generally come on their own.

CONAN: And would this - as I understand that the technology, Randall Stross, might have two different options. One of which would report the location automatically. And the other which might require you pushing a button or a sequence of buttons to release the information.

Prof. STROSS: That is true. Right now, you have to subscribe to these services. No one is being handed this cell tracking service - the newest services. And is being tracked continuously other than the examples I gave involving employees and children. So you have to have signed up so that you could press a button. And I don't know if someone is in extremely distraught state of mind whether they would be able to press the proper button to send the location so that help could be sent.

CONAN: Or have to be talked into it by people like John in Grand Rapids. John, interesting point. Thanks very much.

JOHN: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

If you have a memory retention issues and a Blackberry handheld device, you might want to consider a service offered by a little company in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's called Naggie, LLC. Andrew Zimmer is the founder of Naggie. He joins us now from the studio at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. And I'll let Andrew explain what is it the Naggie does?

Mr. ANDREW ZIMMER (Founder, Naggie, LLC): Well, Naggie uses your location to help you remember to do things. It's essentially a to-do list, which uses your location to trigger reminders. So, one example is, you know, today I was supposed to pick up my dry cleaning and I have dry cleaning on my to-do list but, you know, I don't look at my to-do list enough and I walk by the dry cleaners two or three times a day. And I don't look at my list, and I forget it. But with Naggie, as you're walking by or as you're driving by, you can set distance whatever you like. As you approach the relevant area, in this case the dry cleaners, your Blackberry would vibrate or it'd pop-up a little box that says, don't forget to pick up the dry cleaning.

CONAN: And you came up with this because?

Mr. ZIMMER: That sort of thing happened to me all of the time. I would go to the grocery store and walk out and, you know, forget things. Or I would walk, you know - my favorite example: it's a long way to Home Depot and so I want to go to Home Depot and I was sort of on the highway, sort of relatively close, and I just - I'd keep going. I'd forget to stop all the time.

CONAN: And presumably there's probably still some shirts lightly starched out there with your name on them somewhere.

Mr. ZIMMER: Well, with Naggie, I hope they're all in my closet by now.

CONAN: Okay. Stay with us. We'll take some more calls when we come back from a short break. We're talking about new technology that's available through your cell phone, which can track where you are, send that information to friends, or maybe even to nearby stores, and technology that raises concerns over privacy. You can join our conversation if you'd like 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

When the defense department opened its GPS satellite system to the public back in the 1980s, it spurred an industry of small devices that can pinpoint your location almost anywhere on the planet. The same technology that many people use in their cars is now built into many cell phones. Today, we're talking about what you can do with this so-called social mapping technology and what privacy concerns these new services might raise.

Our guests are Randall Stross, professor of business at San Jose State University, who writes the “Digital Domain” column for The New York Times. Also with us is Andrew Zimmer, the founder of a company called Naggie, LLC.

Of course, we want to hear from you. If you use your cell phones' built-in GPS to find a cab, or groceries, or nearby friends, give us a call. If you don't, do you like the sound of these services or are you worried about some of the implications about privacy? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail talk@npr.org.

And, Andrew Zimmer, Naggie, as I understand, it is only available to Blackberry owners. How come?

Mr. ZIMMER: At the moment, that's true. Mostly, it's because the GPS implementation is - I would use the word fragmented. By that I mean, different carriers, and different devices - all use different methods to expose the GPS information to a developer. So, as a developer, I would have to write a slightly different program for one phone and because there's so many different phones out there, I'd end up with, you know, 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 different versions of Naggie and it becomes a fairly difficult problem to manage.

CONAN: Randall Stross, let me ask you, isn't that a problem for the FCC?

Prof. STROSS: The FCC seems to be very uncomfortable with the whole mass of issues that have been posed by the advent of GPS technology. And one of the things the industry association has been pressing the FCC for is clearer rules about keeping logs, protecting user's privacy, because the industry, surprisingly, is urging more regulation upon itself rather than less because they understand that people are very nervous about privacy information - the retention of data about their whereabouts. And they want to be able to tell people the government has made it very clear that this data will never be misused.

CONAN: I wonder Andrew Zimmer, as you listen to that, are you among those who want careful regulation to this?

Mr. ZIMMER: Oh, definitely. I think having regulation and having standards, not only protects the consumers, but it also means that for people who want to make software for GPS or any location based service - it's that much easier for us to do. We know that we can write the application and it will work the same way on all handheld. So I'm definitely all for it.

CONAN: And on your system would it be easy for hackers to access this information and download the laundry list?

Mr. ZIMMER: It's extremely difficult. That's actually one of the reasons that we built the first version with Blackberry is because their security is very good. You'd have to go through a very long authentication process as a developer and their security is so good, in fact, that a lot of government employees use Blackberries.

CONAN: And I wonder at this point, are you anticipating that your children will be heirs to the Naggie fortune?

Mr. ZIMMER: I'm keeping my fingers crossed. But I'm keeping my day job at the same time.

CONAN: And, thanks very much. Appreciate your time.

Mr. ZIMMER: Thank you.

CONAN: Good luck with it. Andrew Zimmer is the founder of Naggie, LLC and he joins us today from a studio at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Dave. Dave with us from Grand Junction, Colorado.

DAVE (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

DAVE: (Unintelligible) a lot of interesting applications to it, but just like in the dot-com boom with all the talk about pushed technology on the Internet, if they'd be able to push you all kind of information, that didn't really take off until RSS became available recently the past couple of years. Now, I have subscriptions to all kinds of different blogs, and publications, and the kinds, and company things. I think in the same way, I'd like to be able to choose very carefully what I get - what information gets pushed to my cell phone, location based.

CONAN: And it…

DAVE: (Unintelligible) but only if I have a lot of control over what is - who has the information and what's being sent to me.

CONAN: And that strikes me, Randall Stross, as somebody wanting opt-in as opposed to automatic access to everybody.

Prof. STROSS: Right. And that is what the carriers are initially offering is opt-in only. I wanted to add a comment about the problem of security and the risk of databases being hacked. I think the best way to reassure people that there is no danger of such a thing coming to pass, is a very simple solution, which is not permitting the carriers to retain location data. It should be treated as a very transit form of data. Maybe just sitting on the servers for just a few minutes and then, being automatically purged. That's the best protection.

CONAN: Yet, what if you found out that so and so had a cell phone with GPS and had a bomb or was a serial killer or something like that and you wanted to trace his motion of the past month?

Prof. STROSS: Well, cell phone technology by its nature is always tracking us all the time. Our location is tied to a particular cell and as we move, a call, is passed from one cell to another. It's not as precise as a GPS device provides, but if law enforcement needs to retrospectively, re-create a path of someone who is using a particular service, that can still be done.

CONAN: Dave, thanks for the call.

DAVE: Can I add one quick comment?

CONAN: Sure.

DAVE: I just like to add that not only should the information be very transient but also I think it shouldn't be developed by each individual carrier. I think that a set standard should be developed, that it's an open source and available, that everybody can have a good look at it, make sure that it's not hiding any proprietary (unintelligible) in there. Then, it will be easier for the developers to make use of and easier to regulate.

CONAN: Dave, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Tim. Tim in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

TIM (Caller): Hi.


TIM: I use one of the - it's called a Chaperone service from Verizon.

CONAN: And that enables you to track somebody else's cell phone?

TIM: Just a particular individual. Actually, me and my wife both have it on each other's phone. And when we, like, go shopping we'll turn it on. And if we're at the mall then we can find each other. We don't use it for the intended purpose but…

CONAN: I was going to say, you and your wife use Chaperone, eh?

TIM: Yeah. And then I'll leave it on and she'll see that I'm, you know, down there on the corner at the pub. She'll give me a call and ask me what's on tap.

CONAN: So when you get lost in the mall, she can find you?

TIM: Yeah. That's right.

CONAN: All right. Get lost in the parking lot. She can find you.

TIM: It's really helpful this time of the year when there's tons and tons of people in the mall.

CONAN: And any concerns about privacy on this?

TIM: You have to really jump through a bunch of hoops on the phone to even turn the service on so that it can find your location.

CONAN: So not so easy for other people outside to use it either.

TIM: Right.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much for the call.

TIM: Thanks.

CONAN: And, Randall Stross, that sounds like mark one version of this technology.

Prof. STROSS: It does. It reminds me though that a geographer I spoke with at Suny, Buffalo used that very same example of spouses using this service and then finding that should they, for whatever reason innocuous reason, want to go some place without the other spouse knowing.

CONAN: Like to buy them a secret present, for example.

Prof. STROSS: That would be a very innocuous use, right. They turn it off. Will that act, if they go out off the map, will that arouse concern and suspicion? That using this service may create an expectation of constant availability and is that something we want to build into our lives?

CONAN: As more cell phone companies over GPS tracking technology, it also raises questions about who knows where you are, when, and who can access that information.

Peter Swire was chief counsel for privacy in the Clinton administration. He's currently a law professor at the Ohio State University in Columbus. And he joins us now by phone from his office there.

Good to talk to you, Peter.

Professor PETER SWIRE (Ohio State University): Hello, Neal.

CONAN: You have concerns about this technology?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, we have to - you have to build that right, and you sure don't want have people being surprised by being tracked when they have no idea they're being tracked.

CONAN: And that would be the technology to make sure you are opting into stuff, as opposed to just being tracked all the time?

Prof. SWIRE: Right. And I'm not sure this is true but I think I've heard that in some systems: GPS defaults on. And I think that's a bad idea.

CONAN: And the fact remains though that mobile telephones themselves are - part of their functions is to be a tracking device?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, it's a tracking device so the phone company can do a very good thing, which is to put you in the right cell and find your phone so they can send you a call, and that's what customers want. But I don't think most customers realize by getting a cell phone that they've changed their life, so they're carrying a tracking device, it's beeping somehow into a database wherever they go in life. And as a society, I think, like your show today, is helping people think through, gee, having that kind of location database on everywhere I've ever been. That's quite a surprise.

CONAN: Does the law say anything about this?

Professor SWIRE: It said a little tiny bit about it. It says that the companies can't sell this information under some FCC rules, at least unless they've given you an opt-out choice. But those rules were written before location information was really something the law was thinking about.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And in terms of the law, Randall Stross, what do you understand what it says?

Prof. STROSS: Well, the law does require carriers to build in the technology that gives them the ability to find you for - if you place a 911 call, but it does say you have to explicitly give your permission for that location information to be used for any other purpose.

CONAN: And is there a gray area on what permission consists of?

Prof. STROSS: Apparently so, and that's why the industry trade group a few years ago tried to get the FCC to make clear those rules about what exactly constitutes consent. Is there such a thing as implied consent? If you buy a GPS equipped phone, are you implicitly saying you consent to the use of that location information?

CONAN: If you have one of these phones and you buy a grande latte, are you consenting for Starbucks to send you information?

Prof. STROSS: That could be an example of a very broad definition of implied consent.

CONAN: And Peter Swire, these issues, they get hammered out. These are not easily done. These things get hammered out usually over time in the courts, don't they?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, the courts might do it. I think that you could have the FCC do rules. You can have Congress write laws. And I think Congress is especially going to have to think about the laws when it comes to government getting access to these databases.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. And this is Rary(ph). Rary calling us from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hello, Rary? I guess Rary has left us. Probably to - never mind.

Anyway, let's go to Mark. And Mark's with us from Oakland, California.

MARK (Caller): Hi. A couple of your speakers have addressed in different kinds of ways that your phone can know where you are. And pretty much all of the different ways that the carriers are enabling require the carrier's network to be able to track you down, like whether it's through the cell tower or maybe there's a GPS chip in the phone but the cell tower's helping the phone out in terms of figuring out where it is. What if the phone - like I have TomTom on my phone, for example, which is a way in which you can get directions and use it as a car navigation device.

CONAN: Right.

MARK: Well, what if only the phone itself knows what your location is? Doesn't that mean that you have a lot more control over giving out that location to other services, if it's the phone and not the phone network that's tracking you?

CONAN: Randall Stross, is that a difference without a distinction?

Prof. STROSS: Well, that's why one can use something like Google Maps for mobile phones right now without being concerned that the information's being shared with others. So you can, as you suggest, application by application, choose those kinds of uses that do not involve sharing your location information.

But ultimately it's the nature of the cellular technology that the carrier does have to know where your phone is at all times. And that does always keep - at least in the far recesses of our minds - the concern that, for example, government may use that information in ways we - that would make us uncomfortable.

CONAN: Mark, thanks for the call. We're talking about the uses of GPS tracking technology in cell phones. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let me ask you about that point that Randall Stross just raised, Peter Swire. I mean this is - uses of this technology by government. You could get annoyed by, you know, coupons from Starbucks. Government is where you start getting into real concerns.

Prof. SWIRE: Well, again, it's a revolutionary thing for people to carry tracking devices. So most of us didn't carry a cell phone 10 years ago. Most of us have one today. And cell phones have this tracking built in. And so it's not as though we have centuries of experience as a society thinking about, oh, the government should be able to use this tracking device or not use this tracking device.

And so sometimes you see government people saying, well, there's no laws against it, so we should be able to go ahead and get this data. But I think that's not a very good argument, because we've never had the discussion about whether government should get a moment-by-moment read-out on where citizens are.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we got from Douglas in Cincinnati, Ohio. I'm a technology junky, but the last thing I need is a way for advertisers to further intimidate me. Who in their right mind would want more dreck in their lives? I would pay for service that guarantees I will not be bothered based on my location.

I guess, Randall Stross, that's the reverse application for entrepreneurs.

Prof. STROSS: Right. You know, in 1988, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act that kept our video rental records secret and private. Perhaps we should consider a cell phone privacy protection act that would make clear that we want our location information kept private.

CONAN: As this technology expands, and Peter Swire, as we mentioned, the 911 law requires that cell phones be able to do this, so the technology's going to be there. What do you think we ought to be able to do now, you know, in the process of agreeing on rules? Is it the FCC? Is it Congress? Where should the debate be?

Prof. SWIRE: Well, I think the debate, I hope, starts with some things that have already been said. One of them is this idea of don't automatically retain location data. If you don't have a database, then there's not going to be this huge temptation for everybody to mine in it.

And sometimes with a database, if you build it, they will come. Once you have the databases built into the technology, users after user start to find out about it and try to find it and they can justify, gee, it would be so great if we knew where Peter had been every minute.

So I think that not assuming databases and having very clear permissions for the people who want to play, but then not expecting other people to be tracked, those are a couple of things to have as principles to start with.

CONAN: Peter Swire, thanks very much. Appreciate it.

Prof. SWIRE: Okay.

CONAN: Peter Swire was the chief counselor for privacy in the Clinton administration, currently professor of law at the Ohio State University's law school. Joined us today by phone from his office in Columbus, Ohio.

We just have a few seconds left, Randall Stross, but where does this debate go next in terms of what you know?

Prof. STROSS: I think we'll be debating these issues, but I don't think we will be slowing, ultimately, the widespread adoption of this technology. Past experience suggests that once we invent a technology, we use it.

CONAN: Randall Stross is professor of business at San Jose State University, the author of the “Digital Domain” column in the New York Times. Thanks very much.

Prof. STROSS: Thank you.

CONAN: Randall Stross joined us today from a studio at Stanford University in Stanford, California. When we come back from a short break, today's resignation of the United States ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. Plus, we'll gather around Major League Baseball's hot stove and get a mid-December warm-up. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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