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Friday, March 14, 2008


If U.S. marketers have their way, Big Brother will spring to life every time you use your cell phone, or even as it lays dormant in your pocket or purse. In addition to knowing who you are talking to, what you are looking at on the Internet, or what music you are listening to, they know where you are. Yes, they can target your location based on what tower your signal is being transmitted through, merrily following you along as you move from one cell phone tower to another. The towers are, of course, the way they accommodate the transmission and receipt of your calls and other services you use. An Associated Press article on MSNBC, “Marketers target cell phones,” by Anick Jesdanun is a reminder of George Orwell’s 1984, and how the Thought Police maintained surveillance over the citizens of Oceania. Most people keep their cell phones with them at all times, so business might have just discovered a tracking device even better than RFID (radio frequency ID) chips that merchants had hoped to place in merchandise that could also document consumer movements. According to Jesdanun, cell phone carriers are now “guarding the data zealously,” but many think Big Brother will arrive in a year or two, swooping down to watch every move you make. Here’s a scenario: you Googled for pizza places a couple of times on your cell phone, and one afternoon around dinner time you are passing a pizza parlor, and your phone rings to alert you of the fact. That’s not even far-fetched. The following may be. You’re an unfaithful husband having an affair, and your wife is able to follow where you are going with a mapping program, finding that you end up at the apartment of your new love interest. It would be possible based on current technology. The AP article has several such illustrations of potential breaches of our privacy, and with the private information in cell phone company databases that could be used to spy on customers, the possibilities are almost unlimited. Any program of this nature should be 100 percent opt-in by the customer, and even then, Internet search habits should not be kept over 30 days by the carrier. Jesdanun thinks that combining location data with purchase history could be likely for the future. Unless the cell phone companies have underachievers in their IT department—and I doubt that seriously—this data is already being matched with the rest of the customer’s record. Not that this is directly connected, but four of the top wireless companies, AT&T/Cingular, Sprint/Nextel, Verizon and TMobile have some of the highes consumer complaint rates with the Federal Trade Commission, based on a recent study by Chris Hofnagle, Senior Staff Attorney at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. You might ask just what is the connection? My answer is if the auto insurance companies can evaluate my driving habits by looking at my credit report, I can evaluate cell phone companies by looking at how they service their customers.

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