Thought for the day: Mobile phone or mapping device?

Are we ready for location-based technology tracking our every move? James Harkin believes unlimited government surveillance could...

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Are we ready for location-based technology tracking our every move? James Harkin believes unlimited government surveillance could have mobile phone users switching off in droves.



The biggest leap forward enabled by next-generation mobile devices lies in the coming to maturity of "location-aware" or "context-aware" technology.

Wireless phone operators can already locate the source of a mobile phone transmission to the nearest cell in which the phone is being used: data which is, at best, accurate to within about 500m. But a convergence of different technologies is now making it possible to locate a mobile to within a few metres, enabling location-specific services.

Improved context-awareness may not emerge as the killer app that will prompt consumers to buy the new phones (sexier services such as video telephony may do that), but it is likely to be the one used most creatively and to have the most profound effect on the fabric of society.

As the technology develops it will send us personalised information about places we happen to be passing and will also help to overhaul the delivery of public services. The new mobiles, for example, will enable the emergency services to locate a caller and dramatically reduce response times.

The question is: are we are ready for this? The mobile phone is already a suspect device, frowned on in public spaces as anti-social; it has been blamed for everything from frying our brains to sparking a crime wave and causing teenage illiteracy. Once the next-generation devices are widely available, it will be accused of being a tracking device.

How emerging fears about location-based "spamming" of our mobiles are resolved will turn on whether the benefits of the technology are perceived as worth the intrusion into our personal space. Marketeers will find that unless their communications are welcome they will backfire. But unless mobile users are prepared to trade their privacy enough for organisations to build up a profile of what they want, the technology will end up a dead duck.

Tensions also look likely to arise between citizens and governments which help themselves to broad powers of access to location-based data. Last year the UK government proposed to extend the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to a range of government bodies to gain access to communications data. After vigorous protests from civil liberties campaigners it backed down.

The new mobile devices mean the authorities will have ready access to a map of our daily movements. Unless there are clear limits on how government can use the information it gleans from our mobile communications there may well be a quasi-Luddite backlash against the technology itself.

In the hands of governments that are keen to add to the machinery of surveillance, location-sensitive IT might be used to hold individuals accountable for their day-to-day activities.

A government with genuine confidence in its public would undertake only to request mobile location data to investigate clearly defined categories of serious crime. If not resolved properly, our concerns about privacy might even result in the increased environmental awareness of the new phones being turned off at the point of use.

Important though some of those concerns are, we should strive to ensure that they do not impede the development of the technology itself. That means putting our trust in the technology as well as hoping for a government that trusts us.

What do you think?

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James Harkin is the author of Mobilisation: the growing public interest in mobile technology, published by Demos

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