911 Tracking System Raises Privacy Concerns

When Esther Green and her baby daughter were carjacked outside an Atlanta strip mall two years ago, Green had the quick thinking to secretly dial 911 on her cell phone and call out landmarks so emergency operators would know where she was.

It worked: police found the car and arrested the carjacker. But not everyone will be that lucky, which is why the federal government has ordered cell phone makers to equip their phones with location-finding technology known as E-911, or Enhanced 911.

When you call 911 from a residence or an office, emergency services personnel can trace the call to your location. But when you call from a regular cell phone, they can't.

Nowadays, between 30 percent and 50 percent of all 911 calls come from wireless phones, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

"With this location technology out there, I think lives will be saved, people will safer. And I think that will be a great thing," says Tom Sugrue, head of the FCC's wireless bureau.

But Where Will It End?

But privacy advocates warn that E-911 devices open the door to potential abuse. They envision a world where our movements are tracked by the by hackers, stalkers, employers, insurers and the government.

"The problem is that people are using these devices without the knowledge that their whereabouts are being tracked and that databases are being created documenting their daily itineraries," says David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"We're moving toward a situation where just by virtue of having been somewhere an individual might become a suspect in a criminal investigation," he warns.

Sobel also says location information could be a gold mine for divorce lawyers who will use cell phone records to prove a spouse has been unfaithful.

And then there's the question of marketers. "Using location technology, retailers may soon have the capability of calling you as you walk by their stores. Come in and get a dollar off a latte," Sobel warns.

Congress has said that marketers can't call you without your prior consent, but there are no clear rules yet on what constitutes consent.

It will take four years before Enhanced-911 location technology is fully implemented.

Privacy activists concede there is time for Congress and the FCC to minimize the potential for mischief and maximize the potential that, for people like Esther Green, help comes sooner.