Digital Tracking Devices Coming Soon

Imagine walking by a Starbucks in an unfamiliar city. Your cell phone rings, and a coupon for coffee pops up on its screen, good only at that location.

How did your phone know you were even near that particular Starbucks? What else does it know about you?

Enter location tracking, coming to a mobile device near you. Features that one day can pinpoint your whereabouts to within the length of a football field raise enormous privacy concerns, but they also offer enormous benefits.

The challenge will be determining where to draw the line.

Digital Angel

Consider a technology to be unveiled today. Called Digital Angel, a microchip worn close to the body promises to record a person’s biological parameters and send distress signals during medical emergencies.

But misused, these types of capabilities could amount to virtual stalking.

Cell phones, handheld devices, even car navigation systems will soon have detailed tracking abilities, if they do not already. Services could begin appearing within a year or so.

Much of the drive will come from a federal law that requires cell phones to identify callers’ locations to speed 911 emergency responses. If the industry has to install expensive equipment anyway, why not use it also to make money?

“There’s going to be a dramatic increase in the amount of tracking that’s made possible, in part by services they don’t know they have,” said Daniel J. Weitzner of the World Wide Web Consortium, which sets technical standards for the Web.

Such tracking will let someone visit a Web site and automatically get weather, movie showings or neighborhood restaurants, based on their current location. If they’re lost, they will be able to ask for turn-by-turn directions. Those short of cash can be pointed to the nearest bank machine.

Big Brother Always With Us?

But if the information is stored, location tracking could result in a 24-hour-a-day record of a person’s whereabouts.

So what if a divorce lawyer wants to check if someone’s been cheating, or if a social service agent wants to know how many times a person has visited a candy store with his child?

“You have to ask, ‘Who gets how much information?“‘ said Jason Catlett, chief executive of Junkbusters Corp., a non-profit privacy monitoring group in Green Brook, N.J.

“Telephone records are routinely subpoenaed. They can be very intrusive, but far more intrusive is a complete log of your physical movement.”

But companies looking to gain business from location tracking insist that the worst-case scenarios presented are impractical to implement in reality.

“There’s no way a database is large enough or cost effective for Starbucks to monitor everyone’s location on the offchance they can acquire a customer,” said Jason Devitt, chief executive of Vindigo, which offers 11 city guides through Palm organizers.

Lee Hancock, founder and chief executive of go2 Systems Inc., said any short-term gains from such tactics would be offset by losses if they alienate customers.

Leading wireless and advertising companies agree that they must tread carefully because mobile devices are inherently more personal than desktop computers.

Slow Rollout

At DoubleClick Inc., whose ad-targeting system generated much of the Net’s privacy complaints, officials won’t deliver location-based ads right away. The company wants to develop privacy standards first, using lessons from the desktop.

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