Retailers — and the Government — Can Find You Wherever You Are

It's only a matter of time, though it's not really the feds we have to worry about

Technology that can dispatch an ambulance to within 50 meters of the wireless phone from which a 911 call was made has commercial enterprises quivering with anticipation and privacy advocates quaking in their boots.

In theory, on Oct. 1, wireless operators will begin the slow rollout of network- and handset-based Automatic Location Identification services under Phase II of the Federal Communications Commissions wireless Enhanced 911 rules. If you call for help on an ALI-capable wireless phone, the new technology should be able to find your location, just as wireline E911 systems can determine where a call came from, even if no one on the other end of the line speaks.

The goal, of course, is to improve emergency response to the estimated 140,000 wireless 911 calls made in the U.S. each day. But it will be a good day in Seattle when instead of firing up on the Palm VII, asking for Starbucks and being presented with a dozen locations within a certain radius, you can ask for the same information on your wireless phone and be given the location of the nearest Starbucks, precise directions to it and a coupon.

"Im surprised there is not more sector-based commercial stuff going on today," said Stephen Meer, co-founder and chief technology officer of Intrado, a provider of wireless and wireline 911 technology. "Its unclear whether [operators] are wholly consumed with dealing with Phase II 911, or if theyve been unable to come up with a business case. I think it may be a chicken-and-egg kind of deal."

So which will come first: the improved emergency ser-vice, the retail applications or the privacy violations?

If all goes according to the FCCs plan — and observers doubt that very much — wireless ALI will be ubiquitous by 2005. By then, industry should have solved the issue of how to allow wireless customers to opt out of commercial tracking services, while still being covered by E911.

Still, privacy wonks worry that the government will abuse the ALI technology, using it to hunt down criminals who are carrying cell phones or to track the movements of ordinary citizens. Others say theres more to worry about in the private sector.

"Ultimately, people are going to want to have a privacy mask or filter that does different things at different times for different people," Meer said. "Im happy to have my wife know where I am all the time, but I may not want my employees to know where I am when Im off."