Dial 'P' for Paranoid

 Q: I read somewhere that the FBI found that mailbox-bombing kid by tracking his cell phone. Maybe I've seen Enemy of the State one too many times, but that creeps me out. How easy is it for Sprint or VoiceStream—or, more importantly, my crazy ex—to figure out where I am?

It's getting easier all the time, thanks to an obscure law compelling wireless carriers to deploy tracking technology. In 1996, the Federal Communications Commission decreed that cell-phone providers must start outfitting their networks with Enhanced 911 (E911) systems, which pinpoint a distressed caller's location for the benefit of rescue workers. The technology's a potential godsend should you ever get trapped beneath a backhoe in rural Appalachia or vault your Buick off a featureless stretch of Highway 51. But E911's Orwellian vibe is indeed unsettling, and the potential for misuse by cops, corporations, and crazy exes will be high.

The vast majority of E911 schemes rely on the global positioning system (GPS), an array of 24 low-orbiting satellites overseen by the Pentagon. New cell phones come with GPS chips that receive radio signals from these spacecraft, then use time differentials to compute longitude and latitude—often nailing down a location to within 10 meters.

illustration: Josh McKible

The E911 rollout is going a bit slower than planned, so tracking won't be ubiquitous until 2006. The industry blames the delay on the upgrade's price tag of $1 billion per carrier. They hope to recoup that outlay by peddling location-based services (LBS), which can turn your humble handset into a navigation aid, restaurant guide, or coupon booklet.

Say you're strolling along Broadway and suddenly have a hankering for fried fish. Your LBS-enabled phone can direct you to the closest café serving golden-brown haddock. Or if you're walking past a pharmacy, your handset may start ringing and display a message like "You're getting awfully tubby; why don't you stop in here for some Slim-Fast? Ten percent off for the next 10 minutes!"

Mobile spam may annoy, but there are more sinister applications to consider. As alleged art student-cum-pipe bomber Luke Helder found out, cell-phone tracking gives police a big edge. Civil libertarians fret that the technology will be co-opted by private eyes to nab cheating spouses, or by control-freak bosses to make sure their employees aren't playing golf on sick days. A Calgary firm called Cell-Loc is already selling LBS to parents who want to monitor their teens' after-school habits.

Public-interest groups like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (www.epic.org) are understandably skeeved out, and they're pressing the feds to issue rules on how data can be gathered, used, and archived. But FCC chairman Michael K. Powell is no fan of government regulation, so odds are the agency will keep its meddling to a minimum. That means your privacy may depend on the goodwill of wireless carriers and handset makers, both of whom swear they're developing nifty safeguards. A few of their early fixes look promising—new Qualcomm phones, for example, won't dispense location info until an "I Am Here" button is pressed.

Other than trusting the companies, alas, your options are limited. You can dash off a heated missive to the FCC, demanding strict "opt in" rules. Or you can ditch your cellie altogether and pray that a pay phone's nearby should you ever need a Medevac helicopter. Because he cares, Mr. Roboto doesn't recommend living that dangerously.


If you've ever fantasized about hearing your Irish terrier wax rhapsodic, check out the latest gizmo from Japanese toy maker Takara. On May 9, the company unveiled the Bowlingual, a $100 contraption that translates canine yaps into preprogrammed nuggets of wisdom like "Let's play" or "I've had enough." A microphone clipped to Fido's collar gauges the timbre and pitch of each bark, and a palm-sized device uses that info to assess the pooch's mood—happy, baffled, or a wee bit dissatisfied with the existential crisis that is life. Don't start dusting off your Doctor Dolittle getup just yet, however—the company hasn't announced when the Bowlingual will hit North America.


Input questions via bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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