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Cellphone tracking services: Friend finder or Big Brother?

Mobile location tracking lets you see where your friends are. But what about privacy?

By Michael B. FarrellStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / May 1, 2009

As GPS merges with cell phones, the ability to meet up with new “friends” online becomes much easier. But it is fraught with security concerns.

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Where r u? That text message, says Sam Altman, was so common that he wanted to find a way to answer it – for everyone.

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As a sophomore in computer science at Stanford University, Mr. Altman imagined a way that mobile phone users could seamlessly check their friends’ whereabouts with location-tracking technology. But back in 2005, global positioning system (GPS) hadn’t arrived in smart phones.

Technology soon caught up with the idea. Today his company, Loopt, has more than 1 million users and is one of the most popular services to allow people to track their friends via their smart phones. And with more cellphones now equipped with GPS, other services such as Google Latitude are collecting location data from scores of users and broadcasting that information through phone networks or the Internet.

Such tracking services offer a great way for people stay connected – and can be a boon for parents – but their proliferation also has privacy advocates biting their nails. As companies forge into largely uncharted areas of tracking and recording customer locations, many worry that consumers won’t be able to ensure that their private information – such as their whereabouts on a given day – is being safeguarded, especially from advertisers.

“How are we going to get all the benefits that come from doing geo-location without sacrificing people’s privacy?” asks Lauren Gelman, executive director of Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society (CIS).

Ms. Gelman and other privacy experts caution that when users allow companies to track their locations, third parties – such as the government, litigants, and advertisers – can potentially tap into that data. “If you have the information, someone is going to come asking for it.”

In other words, could your iPhone or BlackBerry be used to spy on you? Will your spouse or employer know where you are even when you don't want them to?

Who’s in the Loopt?

As Loopt and Google are moving forward in the realm of geosocial or mobile social networking, companies such as NearbyNow and Placecast are exploring ways that advertisers could potentially exploit growing databases of location-specific information (imagine, for instance, getting a coupon for pizza on your mobile phone after walking by a pizzeria).

Altman stresses that Loopt puts a premium on customer privacy and doesn't sell the information to advertisers. It does, however, post ads on its service based on location. Its privacy policy states: “Loopt discloses some personally identifiable, registration, profile, or location information to subsidiaries, affiliated companies, or other businesses or persons for the purpose of providing certain features of the Loopt Services, in order to serve relevant advertisements in support of the Loopt Services, and for processing such information on our behalf.”

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