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Your Cell Phone Tracks Your Every Movement

Boulder, CO – Someday in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be visiting a new city – lost – but your cell phone company will know exactly where you are and may market products and services to you based on your location. Your cell phone is generally toted around and used by a single person: you.


Unless you use an expensive, pre-paid cell phone, your cell phone’s unique ID is linked to your billing information (your name, address, social security number and credit card information). Helping stranded motorists find their way is good. Helping hungry travelers find the closest vegetarian restaurant may be useful. Helping police, fire and medical personnel find accident scenes more quickly can be a lifesaver. But a hidden cost of these tracking systems is that your location-based information is recorded and saved into a file that can be searched at a later date.


Think divorce proceedings, criminal trials or justification to fire employees for hanging out at casinos instead of visiting customers. Imagine a line of questioning that goes something like this: “Where were you on the night of the July 25, Ms. Smith?,” a divorce lawyer asks. “According to your cell phone provider’s records, your cell phone was located at the Hideaway Hotel.” Perhaps Ms. Smith should have turned off her cell phone before the alleged rendezvous. “There are some things you don’t mind other people knowing, but your location isn’t one of them,” said Gary Laden, a privacy program director for BBBOnLine, a Better Business Bureau subsidiary. Like migratory birds with radio collars strapped to their backs, the paths of wireless-enabled, wandering humans are increasingly recorded in meticulous detail (at least everywhere they’re in decent cell phone coverage).


Why is your cell phone’s location tracked? More than 190 million 911 calls are placed annually, and 25 percent of those are made from a wireless phone. When you dial 911 from your landline phone, you can be certain that within minutes of your call, police, fire and medical assistance will arrive to your location. It’s fairly easy to dispatch people to your location because your house is a fixed location. But for cell phone users who dial 911, precious minutes can be wasted trying to figure out where to send emergency personnel. In a former career as an emergency medical technician (EMT), I’ve been in the dispatcher hot seat. A lot of people really don’t know where they are and are often really freaked out by the emergency situation. Telling you where they are isn’t always an easy process. The FCC has required that all U.S. cell phone companies track their cell phone customers’ location for emergency purposes. Cell phone companies, in turn, see new revenue opportunities to offset the burden of installing these complex new location-tracking systems.


In the past, cell phones have given us the freedom to hide. I may not want someone to know that I’m in Iowa, just that I’m available to answer their questions and solve their problems. So before you wander carefree with your cell phone in hand, know that if you really want privacy from being located and found, the “off” button may be your best option.

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