When the Phone Goes With You, Everyone Else Can Tag Along

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 12, 2008

John Arispe cruised slowly along in his car, one eye on the road, one eye on a glowing blue dot on a digital map of the Springfield Mall neighborhood in Northern Virginia, displayed on the screen of his sleek new Apple iPhone 3G. As he moved north on Frontier Drive, the dot moved with him. He turned left. The dot smoothly hung a left.

"This is like the stuff you see in movies," the 26-year-old tech aficionado said.

Consumers for years have been able to carry portable electronic devices that can pinpoint where they are on a map or a mountain trail. But yesterday's launch of the iPhone 3G signals the growing sophistication of an industry -- demonstrating the power of marrying precise location technology with the reach of the Internet on mobile devices.

Merchants can use this information to target ads, malls to entice shoppers, insurance adjusters to calibrate premiums, employers to catch moonlighters and parents to keep an eye on children. But what many users may not realize is that by sharing this information, they are creating often permanent records that can tell not only wireless providers, but also social networking sites, other users, and potentially law enforcement and civil attorneys every place they are and have been, as long as their phone and tracking device are on.

"There's a disconnect between our expectations of when we will be observed and who will be observing us and how that information will be used and what the technology is allowing companies to do," said Jennifer Urban, a University of Southern California law professor.

Among the new iPhone's downloadable applications are many that take advantage of location abilities, which use signals sent to satellites from a phone's Global Positioning System (GPS) chip or phone signals to nearby cell towers or wireless routers: Find out where your friends are at the moment. Or what bars they think are cool. Or pull up "geotagged" photos snapped and uploaded by others of the location in which you find yourself.

With Loopt, available on the iPhone and other smartphones, users can locate one another on a map anytime their cellphones are turned on, said Brian Knapp, the company's chief privacy counsel. "You can have your own little broadcast message: 'Hey, I'm at this cafe now. Join me,' '' he said.

Then there's Pelago's Whrrl, which Pelago Chief Executive Jeff Holden said aims to show users "cool places" that their friends have visited and recommended. "You can filter it down through the eyes of your social network, the ones who I trust to get a great dinner,'' he said.

Mark Rasch, a security consultant and former federal prosecutor, said the social network aspect of location technologies poses risks. "As these things integrate into Facebook and buddies lists, suddenly I'm not sharing information with five or six people, but maybe with 200 or 300 people," he said. "If the cops want to find me, they don't have to find out where I am; they can go to somebody on my buddies list."

But the power of the technology is inspiring a new wave of uses.

Researchers at Microsoft, for instance, have collected four years' worth of GPS data from volunteers and built models that estimate road speeds on Seattle-area streets and highways to understand traffic flows at every hour of the day correlated to sports and weather, etc. They built similar models for 72 U.S. cities. The program, Clearflow, helps drivers find the fastest route to their destination and is available via the Internet -- including on a cellphone. Another Microsoft tool would "predict" where a person is going using a sensor in a car or cellphone and perhaps suggest when and where to buy gas depending on the person's daily habits, said Microsoft artificial intelligence researcher Eric Horvitz. In these services, location data are not sent to Microsoft, Horvitz said.

In Manhattan, software analytics firm Sense Networks created Macrosense, a tool that sifts through mounds of location data generated by volunteers to recommend where a retailer ought to open his next store or a municipal transit agency should route its buses. Sense uses aggregate data, ignoring the individual users' identities, said Alex Pentland, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and Sense chief privacy advocate. The firm collects the Internet address information of its users but will not distribute those data, he said.

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