Are You Being Watched By Your Cell Phone?

Hello, my name is David, and I'm a paranoiac.

Actually, I am a recovering paranoiac. As an adolescent in the conspiracy-crazy 1970s, I obsessed over the John F. Kennedy assassination and UFOs, believing that The Government was smothering the truth about each and that federal agents -- perhaps Men in Black -- would pay a not-too-friendly call upon anyone who got too close to the truth. In later years, I reached the conclusion that a lone nerd probably did blow away JFK and that UFOs-from-outerspace likely do not exist, even though when I was 12, and camping in New Hampshire, I one night saw a large oval-shaped thing in the sky that could objectively be called an unidentified flying object.

Still, I had my worries. For instance, metal detectors. Has anyone ever conducted a study on the potential health hazards of repeatedly passing through these devices? Wouldn't the government want to cover up any bad news on this front? I remain hesitant to hand out my Social Security number to those who are not in a need-to-know position. I have watched with fascination as Europeans raise question and grouse about the electronic eavesdropping conducted by the National Security Agency around the world under a supposed program that may or may not be called Echelon. Are America's secret listeners really sucking in most phone calls, emails, and faxes throughout the planet? The cyberization of modern life has provided new concerns. Is some geek within AOL keeping files on the websites I visit? As the Chandra Levy case demonstrates, it's easy to find out the Internet activities a person conducts.

So I now want to say, thank you, Senator John Edwards, for giving us one more thing about which to fret. The other day, Edwards, a Democrat from North Carolina, went to the Senate floor and threw into the hopper what he calls the Location Privacy Protection Act. In doing so, Edwards introduced those paying attention to a new privacy issue. As he explained:

"Within the next few years, technologies will allow companies to know our location any time of day or night. Our cell phones, pagers, cars, Palm Pilots, and other devices will enable companies to constantly track where we go and how often we go there. These services can have enormous advantages. For example, public safety and rescue teams can save lives with systems that enable them to quickly locate crash victims. Imagine being able to ask your cell phone for directions to the nearest Italian restaurant. Or imagine you are traveling in a new city and your pager alerts you when you are within a block of your favorite coffee shop, which happens to be running a sale on coffee. The possibilities for location-based services and applications are endless. But these new technologies also raise serious privacy issues. Location information is very private, sensitive information that can be misused to harass consumers with unwanted solicitations or to draw inaccurate or embarrassing inferences about them. And in extreme cases, improper disclosure of location information to a domestic abuser or stalker could place a person in physical danger."

Hell, it's like all of us -- at least those who have the bucks to buy these high-tech toys -- are going to be tagged and monitored like an endangered condor. "If you have a cell phone in your pocket or Onstar in your car," Edwards says, "somebody knows where you are at all times." I should have realized that, but I never bothered to. "We need," he adds, "to get ahead of the curve on what will soon be a real problem."

We sure do, the latent paranoid in me exclaims. Will marketeers keep track of our movements and use that information in solicitations? ("As a frequent visitor to Victoria's Secret during your lunch hour, we know you have a deep interest in...") When you drive past a billboard, will a computer note your location and flash a personalized ad at you? ("David Corn have we got a deal for you!)"

Actually, such consumer-targeting, while annoying, is not the true danger present. "This really is about inference-based profiling," says Jim Dempsey, the deputy director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Some data-profiler can take the location information and apply it to matters of credit, health insurance and employment."

Say the tracking computers note that you are often up at one in the morning and moving about in a rough section of town. A potential or current employer -- or a health insurance bureaucrat or a credit reviewer -- could look at that information, assume you spend your nights prowling for trouble, and judge you a bad risk. Sure, you can explain it -- after all, you volunteer at a homeless shelter -- but a prospective employer or insurance company vetter or a mortgage officer who has purchased this material from a data-broker might not bother to ask for an explanation.

This threat to privacy comes not from the cell phone industry, for in 1999 Congress passed a law that prohibited carriers from disclosing customer location information without the permission of consumers. But there are now other companies in the position to collect such data -- digital travel-assistance firms, wireless Internet providers -- and they are not covered by the existing ban. Edwards's bill would prevent any entity that gathers location information from using it beyond the purposes of the transaction for which it was generated. (A company could register your location to tell you where the nearest vegetarian fast-food restaurant is, but it could not do anything else with this information -- without your say-so.) The same ban would apply to any third-party that happens to come into possession of location information. The only exception would apply to emergency services. You hit 911 on your cell-phone, and your carrier will be allowed to pass your location to a rescue crew or public safety office.

In recent months, privacy has become good politics. George W. Bush let stand health-record privacy regulations put forward by the Clinton Administration. Senators John McCain, a Republican, and Senator John Kerry, a Democratic, have banded together to push legislation that would force websites to provide visitors the option of telling the site not to collect data on them. Kerry is already a not-so-undeclared candidate for his party's presidential nomination, and McCain ... well, who knows? (Privacy advocates consider the McCain-Kerry approach weak and prefer a tougher bill introduced by Senator Fritz Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat; his measure would require a site to obtain the explicit permission of a visitor before it could gather data on the person.) And House Majority Leader Dick Armey has mounted a personal crusade against traffic surveillance cameras on parkways in the Washington area.

Edwards, a former trial lawyer who has only be in elective politics for three years, is on the early short list of Democratic presidential nominees. He helped steer the patients' bill of rights legislation through the Senate recently. In Democratic circles, there's talk this golden-boy of the party is Bill Clinton's favorite for 2004. (God help him!) And he has been working hard to develop a rep for privacy-protection. Earlier this year, he introduced a measure to limit so-called spyware -- programs attached to software that, unbeknown to the user, track the user's surfing habits.

Edwards location-privacy bill -- like the other privacy measures -- is not on any fast track. Which is hardly unusual for legislation in the Senate. The legislation may eventually move through the Senate and reach a vote, Michael Briggs, an Edwards spokesperson says, because some high-tech firms, including Onstar, support it, believing that privacy protections will increase the appeal of their products. But Briggs notes the measure will also face opposition from businesses that are "not likely to come forward" and announce their position.

In this initiative, Edwards did duck one key matter -- the government's access to location information. The question is, when can the government -- mainly, law enforcement officials -- go to a service provider and ask them to track someone or request they turn over information on that person's previous whereabouts. The FBI and the Justice Department -- no surprise -- want a low standard, one that allows them to obtain a court order for such information if they can show that this material is "relevant" to an ongoing investigation. Such a standard could cover almost any occasion. In past years, Senator Pat Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, has introduced legislation that would force law enforcement officials to show there was "probable cause" that a crime had been committed before a judge could issue a court order. Four years ago, in fact, a senator named John Ashcroft cosponsored this Leahy initiative. And last year, Representative Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, cosponsored a similar bill, which was approved by the GOP-controlled House Judiciary Committee before it died.

These days, neither Ashcroft, the Attorney General, nor Hutchinson, who has been appointed head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, are talking much about the need to limit the availability of location-information data to law enforcement. Even if Edwards manages to turn his bill into law, the feds could still have easy access to data that tracks our movements. Which will give the paranoid set yet another cause for anxiety. Look at your cell phone -- does Big Brother know where you are?


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