Mobiles meddle in privacy

Jun 2005 | Comments Off on Mobiles meddle in privacy

What are the objections to having location devices such as GPS? They may be misused with no protecion

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, finding people and bodies in the rubble was of utmost importance. This task was directed at finding location bearing devices incorporated in commonplace instruments such as mobile phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs) and electronic pagers. By polling these devices electronically using a system of triangulation points it was thought that persons and bodies could be found. Polling is simply sending electronic impulses to receivers to ascertain where these devices are located. However, and sadly, such devices have a limited range and may have no effect if buried in more than a meter of rubble. Also, some such devices incorporate global positioning systems (GPS) and these require access to the sky and to the constellation of satellites orbiting the Earth. Even the sniffer dogs gave up this mammoth task.

GPS enabled mobiles

The use of tracking devices has come at a time when ironically the US government will introduce controversial GPS as a means of tracking mobile phones so that they may be located spatially. In Australia, the Communication Authority (ACA) is attempting also to track mobile phone callers more accurately. In a discussion paper it has been suggested that GPS enabled mobile phones is a possibility.

What are GPS? These are simply satellite tracking devices that help determine locations. Circulating the globe is a constellation of 24 satellites. A GPS must find at least three satellites in order to accurately determine any location and give its “x” and “y” positions. This is simply a matter of triangulating the three satellites to pinpoint a location.

But remember that these satellites are US military satellites and have the ability to mess up the accuracy of locations. On board are devices which can be turned on and off and this is termed ‘selective availability’ (SA). In 2000, President Clinton, in one of his last gestures of office, decreed that SA be switched off permanently. This means that we are now able to get accurate locations up to a meter. If SA was turned on you only could get accuracy between 100 to 500 meters which is useless if you wished to use this device in any practical way.

With that Executive decree it is now possible to see GPS incorporated into the mobile phone through to in-board vehicle navigation systems that emergency vehicles use – fire, ambulance, police etc. BMW has one, as has select Holden cars and the small Hyundai. It should be mandatory for sea farers especially those taking part in epic races such as the Melbourne-Hobart, Sydney-Hobart or even the round-the-world races. GPS could simply be sewn on to the life jackets and activate on hitting water just like how emergency beacons are triggered.

This reminds me of some malfeasant Boeing employees in Washington who stole a life raft from a 747. They were successful in getting it out of the plane and home. When they took it for a float on the river, they were surprised by a Coast Guard helicopter coming towards them. It seems the chopper was homing in on the emergency locator that was activated when the raft was inflated. They are no longer employed at Boeing.


Potential threats 

But seriously, what are the objections to having location devices such as GPS? The devices may be misused, there may be no protection to its misuse. Civil liberties may be threatened and these have been surrendered unknowingly. Criminals may use the technology to track persons using their mobile phones. Marketers could advertise products and invade privacy. Even protective service officers could inadvertently exceed their authority as we may not know under what circumstances they can be used. The Electronic Frontiers Australia and the Australian Communication Industry Forum have discussed these issues at length in their respective websites. See and


Cell networks generate data by collecting information about the cell site and location of the person making or receiving a call. Location information may be captured when the phone is merely on, even if it is not handling a call. It is here that both the government and the private sector are most interested. For the government it mayseek to build added surveillance features into the network and ensure that it can be assessed giving it the increasingly detailed data the network has captured. For the private sector it may use this new information both to provide taxi services as well as to use its potential for advertising.

Location-based services (LBS) are considered by many to be a major potential revenue generator for wireless
operators and service providers. Its applications in e-business are immense.
Location-enabled services include so-called finder services and buddy list services that are linked to Instant Messaging (IM) to help a user find people. Also there will be premium subscriptions for services that track traffic, provide maps and directions, targeted advertising, interactive games, asset tracking, telematics, network management systems and weather reports.


The greatest hindrance to rapid revenue growth for location services is the lack of standards in various technologies, including basic positioning technology. Variants to the technology include AOA (angle of arrival), Cell-ID, E-OTD (enhanced observed time difference), A-GPS (assisted-GPS), D-GPS (differential-GPS), signal attenuation and TDOA (time difference of arrival). These are all related to the sending of signals from one station and a return signal bounced back from either a satellite or another station and instantaneous measurements of time and relative movements of both stations help measure distances as well as pinpoint locations. Don’t be scared off of these acronyms, they become self-explanatory on reflection.

The three largest mobile phone manufacturers are setting up a forum to develop global interoperability between mobile positioning systems. Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia have founded the Location Interoperability Forum (LIF) with the goal of creating wireless location-based services worldwide that will work on all wireless networks and phones.

Privacy and legal protection

But such enhancements to law enforcement surveillance capabilities and market orientated capabilities raise serious privacy concerns. The third generation (3G) cell phones and web enables electronic devices are already available and is eagerly watching for something to happen both in policy terms and in practice. The concern about further atrocities involving the use of electronic communication systems may prevail over the need for manageable e-business and personal data protection. Is the world moving towards a clamp down of human rights protection and data privacy protection? It is too early to tell.

Already plans are afoot to introduce some kind of legislation. In the US a Location Privacy Protection Act has been introduced by Senator John Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat. The Act is designed to protect the privacy of individuals that use Internet-ready devices that pinpoint the person’s location. It would require companies to notify users about location data collection and prohibits the sale and use of the information
without consent. See allnetdevices. com/wireless/news/2001/07/13/location_privacy.html

Some claim that the wireless industry cannot have m-commerce or advertising without location-based services. GPS and location based ads are probably a beautiful thing in theory. The problem is, how much can one absorb in a certain amount of time? See

In Australia, as elsewhere around the world, GPS enhanced mobile phone systems have found a niche in the youth market and especially the Short Message System (SMS) where texts may be sent and received on handsets. Australia’s SMS portal BlueSkyFrogalready has up to 2 million members signed up to receive free SMS alerts for flicks, gigs and fun. Sydney’s newest FM music station Nova 96.9 uses SMS texting for promotions and competitions. Foxtel’s Channel V sends fans personalised SMS alerts to let them know when their artists will next appear on TV. All these suggest that perhaps word of mouth is a more powerful media than traditional advertising, at least among the youth market.

As a final note for the geographically challenged, “x” refers to the latitude of your current location, “y” the longitude of that same location and “z” height above sea level datum. One may ask why teaching geography in schools has been discontinued in some parts of the world, such as in Australia? It’s such a pity that such an interesting and valuable a subject is left only in the minds of people who are able to reminisce about the good old days!


George Cho

is an Associate Professor in Geographic Information Systems and the Law at the University of Canberra. His recent publication is Geographical Information Science: Managing the Legal Issues (2005) published by John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, UK.
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