New mobile phone services prove to be strong tool for tracking their users’ lives

Beware of your pockets and bags, because you may well be harboring a spy. A mobile phone, being used locally in an area densely covered by mobile phone antennae, can betray your location and course to within just a few meters. Every mobile-owning citizen’s right of free movement can be violated at any given time, and this is a sobering thought if one also considers the ever-increasing abundance of surveillance equipment being installed in public spaces (such as closed-circuit television cameras) or other modes of movement monitoring (credit cards or smart cards for building entrances). We are living in an age when every move we make, our entire modus vivendi, can be an open book to prying eyes. Unlikely scenario? This may appear slightly paranoid, but the fact is that we are fast approaching this reality, despite the high level of technology in mobile telephony devices and infrastructure. Indeed, mobile phone tracking has now arrived in Greece and the irony of it all is that it is being marketed as a new service, covering certain dubious needs. One of the three big mobile phone providers operating in Greece is pitching a service known as Finder. According to the company itself, all you have to do is call its special information number and, without specifying your location, ask, for example, where the nearest gas station is. You can also find out the exact location of the nearest pharmacy, bank, ATM, parking lot, hotel, hospital, police station, cinema, theater, nightclub, restaurant or mobile telephony store. What this, in fact, means, is that the company is able to locate the caller’s location on a digital map using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology. The precision with which GIS can pinpoint a location depends partly on the number of transmitters in the area. According to a statement from one of the company’s employees, they can find any location within a few meters. «If the gas station you are looking for is across the street, the system will find it and tell you where it is exactly,» the employee said. A similar service, [email protected], is also being offered by another large mobile telephony company in Greece right now, though it works a bit differently. In this case, users give their exact current location and their destination and the service informs them of all the restaurants, theaters, archaeological sites or sports centers (40 categories in all) in the area. But, can we really argue that people’s privacy is being violated when they voluntarily apply to have these services? The answer is simple. First of all, most citizens are poorly informed on matters relating to the potential and dangers of new technologies and, in this case, even more so concerning location-based services (lbs). They are reeled in on promises of new services, but without being given crucial information on what these services entail. For example, the advertising pamphlets for these services make no mention of the companies’ commitment to protect customers’ privacy. Is the information the system gleans stored anywhere, for example? Can it be used by others and become the subject of scrutiny? What kind of protection is there from hackers breaking into phone company data bases? Logged every 15 minutes It is also worth noting that lbs users are not the only ones at risk of having their privacy violated. Every mobile phone that is switched on sends off a signal at regular intervals (approximately every 15 minutes) that is transmitted to the nearest antenna. The phone’s location is therefore logged by the system’s main computers and any calls going to it within the 15-minute period are automatically routed to that antenna. This means, in effect, that every mobile phone user’s position is recorded every quarter of an hour. The trail may have a few gaps, but it is continuous. Furthermore, using a triangular system with three antenna can pinpoint the user’s location almost exactly. New advances in technology are making the constant tracking of a mobile phone even easier. Devices using GPS (Global Positioning Systems) have already flooded the American and European markets and are expected to be in Greece very soon. These phones are advertised as being useful in case of an emergency, such as an accident or kidnapping, and they can indeed be useful under certain circumstances. The only price the user has to pay is knowing that his/her location can be found within 4.5 meters at any given time. The fact is that a lot of information on each and every one of us is out there, vulnerable to exploitation. Our movements and preferences are open to scrutiny and, in combination with data mining (i.e. digging up information from databases or monitoring devices such as CCTV cameras), and the movement of credit cards, one can draw up a rather precise profile of any given citizen. Shopper watch The following incident was recently reported from the USA, where commercial espionage is said to be rampant and advertising individual-driven: A man nearing a supermarket received an SMS message on his mobile phone informing him that the sauce he normally buys is on sale in that supermarket. The question, therefore, is whether this kind of information is good news, simply annoying or downright frightening.