Time to turn off our phones

Just because you can do something with technology doesn't necessarily mean that you should. Take, for example, the concept of location-based services and location-aware applications being developed by mobile service providers.

Just because you can do something with technology doesn't necessarily mean that you should.

Take, for example, the concept of location-based services and location-aware applications being developed by mobile service providers.

In a nutshell, these are services that rely on a provider's ability to track your physical location via your cellphone. As some marketing executives have pointed out, your mobile service provider could use these types of services to send you a message advertising a promotion at a nearby coffee shop as you walk through Causeway Bay in Hong Kong, for example.

Of course, for your provider to offer this service it must first be able to track your movements through Causeway Bay with enough accuracy to know when you are near the coffee shop.

Naturally, mobile service providers have long been able to track the location of a mobile phone (and its user) using triangulation. Location-aware applications take advantage of this ability to allow the deployment of location-based services, such as proximity advertising, as described above.

But is this what we, as consumers, want? Do we want to find ourselves constantly tracked so that we can be spammed with advertisements?

I sure don't.

The thought of a company tracking and recording my movements is deeply disturbing. And I do not like the thought that anyone is able to monitor who I choose to associate with (something companies will surely be able to do by monitoring the proximity of two mobile phones).

Observers I have spoken with about this issue have told me that location-based advertising services are likely to be implemented on an opt-in basis. In other words, users will have to explicitly agree to receive these services.

If this turns out to be true, that's great. But I have a sneaking suspicion that given the amount of attention currently focused on location-based advertising, these services are far more likely to be provided on an opt-out basis, whereby users must specify they do not want the service.

So, is it our fate to have our movements tracked and recorded as if we were animals tagged with a radio transponder?

I sure hope not.

Imagine, for a moment, that your mobile service provider decides to combine location-based information on its users with information about their Net surfing habits collected by online advertising companies.

In addition to receiving the advertisement about the coffee shop promotion, you also get a message reminding you that tomorrow is your girlfriend's birthday and - oh, by the way - she's really hoping for a new watch and - gee, what a coincidence - that nearby jewellery store happens to be having a sale on watches today.

Think that's a bit of a stretch? Think again.

Your mobile service provider knows who and where you are. And chances are, you will keep track of important dates and events - such as your girlfriend's birthday - in your online planner, perhaps hosted by an application service provider.

Completing the connection, online advertising companies can track your girlfriend's surfing habits through the use of cookies and know she's looking for a new watch because she's been pricing them online.

Of course, to many industry observers, this isn't an invasion of our personal privacy. Rather, they say this adds value to our lives by offering personalised services that we find useful.

Fine. But who's going to guarantee that information about my comings and goings around town is kept safe from prying eyes? My mobile service provider? Yeah, right. Corporations exist for a single purpose - to make money. They do not exist to safeguard our personal privacy.

I, for one, will not trust a profit-driven entity to protect my personal interests.

Many companies, I suspect, view legislation designed to protect personal data privacy as a cost or condition of doing business - not as a genuinely worthwhile endeavour.That may seem a bit cynical. But it's a reflection of the cavalier attitude that some companies take towards protecting users' privacy.

Take DoubleClick's ill-conceived bid to combine information gathered about users' surfing habits with information such as their names, postal addresses, and catalogue purchase histories, for example. This is not exactly the kind of corporate behaviour that inspires confidence.

Closer to home, Hong Kong companies and executives loathe to speak openly with the press about sensitive or controversial topics inspire just as little - or less - confidence.

The problem that we face, besides a business culture that shuns transparency, is a lack of vision.

I can very easily picture a group of business development and marketing executives sitting around a conference table, deciding that location-based applications will be a great way to make lots of money.

However lucrative the technology may be, it also poses a grave threat to personal privacy that no one has even begun to address. Let's hope someone does before it's too late.

Lemon is editor of Computerworld Hong Kong.

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