Monday, June 9, 2008

It's 2:00 am. Does your cell phone know where you are?

As I understand it, cell phones are called cell phones because the area of coverage is divided into (generally overlapping) "cells", each covered by a given tower. This means that if you're connected to the network, the provider will be able to tell, at a minimum, which cells you're in. By looking at signal strength from the towers involved one can get a much more accurate estimate. And as if that's not enough -- and apparently it isn't -- GPS is becoming a standard feature.

Having a precise, accurate location device on hand at all times can be handy and in some cases even life-saving. On the other hand, having an unobtrusive tracking device on one's person at all times raises some obvious privacy issues.

There are two contrasting extreme views on this sort of thing. The Utopian view plays up the "never lost" and "find a restaurant" features and goes on to argue that a world where everybody can locate everybody else is a fundamentally Good Thing.

The dystopian view plays up the privacy concerns, argues that The Man wants to know where you are and, further, wants to make it nearly-impossible to live without your personal tracker.

Naturally, I don't subscribe to either extreme view. I'm not really excited by the idea of a service that alerts me if a friend happens to wander into my vicinity (or vice versa), but neither do I see the whole thing as a step down the slippery slope towards Big Brother. I am a bit concerned that it's easy to forget, or never really realize, how locatable you are when you carry a cell phone, but that problem has been around for a while now.

On the balance I see it as technology taking yet another incremental step and life going on more or less as usual.

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