TOPICS > Science

New Cell Phone Technology Can Track Users

April 11, 2007 at 5:55 PM EDT

PARENT: Here you are.

LEE HOCHBERG, NewsHour Correspondent: Tommy Fritz (ph) of suburban Seattle made sure 5-year-old Parker had crayons in his backpack and a cell phone, with its global positioning system, on his backpack.

PARENT: We’ve got to go. You’ve got to go.

LEE HOCHBERG: Joel Fritz configured his own cell phone so he could track his son throughout the day. Using Verizon Wireless’s chaperone service, he called up a map showing Parker’s school, and he set his phone to alert him if Parker strayed too far from school.

JOEL FRITZ, Verizon Customer: So I think today is a writing day.

LEE HOCHBERG: It’s the new location-based technology, through which parents like Fritz can keep 24-hour watch on their children.

JOEL FRITZ: We’ve been with him through his whole life, you know, up until age 4. We’ve been in preschool with him, and this is the first time where, you know, we haven’t been with him. And I know where he is.

Give me a kiss. Love you.

PARKER FRITZ, Son of Joel Fritz: Goodbye, Dad.


LEE HOCHBERG: Global positioning system, or GPS, chips, are in an estimated 100 million cellular phones. They’re there so 911 dispatchers can quickly locate cell phone callers. But now the average cell user can do the same thing: lock on to another cell user’s GPS chip and pinpoint that phone’s location.

GPS DEMONSTRATOR: I can zoom out, zoom in, depending on what I want to see in a map.

LEE HOCHBERG: Verizon spokesmen say the product has become very popular. Customers pay $10 to $20 a month for it. Sprint, with its family locater, and Disney Mobile offer similar services.

The technology has also been embraced by law enforcement. Colorado authorities found an accused serial rapist by tracking the cell phone he stole from a victim.

Dark side of technology

LEE HOCKBERG: But there are hints that widening access to people's personal location data has a dark side, as well.

SHERRI PEAK, Stalked by Husband: It's like being a prisoner, in a sense.

LEE HOCHBERG: Sherri Peak says she didn't know much about GPS, but after separating from her husband last summer, the Seattle-area mother of two began noticing him wherever she went.

SHERRI PEAK: I would go to the grocery store, and there would be his car in the parking lot. I would be driving down the road, and he would drive by me. I would be approaching an intersection, and he'd be sitting there. I would be running errands and see him in my rearview mirror.

LEE HOCHBERG: After several months, local police agreed to examine her car.

SHERRI PEAK: So the police ended up removing this last and final portion of the dash. And when they opened this, the phone was tucked in over here. With the GPS, he was tapping into finding out where I was all the time.

LEE HOCHBERG: Her ex-husband was convicted for stalking. Peak got a chilling lesson about GPS technology.

SHERRI PEAK: This guy can barely hook up a computer. That's why I was so surprised. In the wrong hands, technology can be used against you in horribly threatening, dangerous ways.

Privacy issues

EVAN HENDRICKS, Privacy Times: The bottom line is, if information is collected, it will be compromised in one form or another.

LEE HOCHBERG: Evan Hendricks examines privacy issues in his Internet newsletter Privacy Times. He believes hackers will steal people's location data or cell companies will share it with government or businesses.

EVAN HENDRICKS: As soon as you create a record, that record can be obtained by other people for purposes that you've never imagined. A bad apple in Verizon can be selling it out the back door. And it can be used by just commercial interest or it could be sold to a stalker if someone's particularly interested in a certain Verizon customer.

LEE HOCHBERG: Verizon Wireless says that worry is unwarranted.

KELLY KURTZMAN, Verizon Wireless: You cannot track it. We don't store that information anywhere.

LEE HOCHBERG: Regional president Kelly Kurtzman says the chaperone system's location data goes only to password-protected Verizon subscribers.

KELLY KURTZMAN: So there's no way for a hacker to be able to go in and get it, to get the information. As we developed this system for the chaperone, we were thinking about those bad guys, because we know they're out there, so we don't capture those records anywhere. We don't catch the information; we don't store the information. So once the request has been completed, that information is deleted, so it's no longer available.

LEE HOCHBERG: But Verizon's other location services may be more vulnerable. Its fleet administrator service allows Verizon business customers to track the locations of their delivery personnel. That information is stored in Verizon databanks.

Fleet administrator tracks the routes a company's drivers take, their driving speed, even how many times their ignition has been turned on.

GPS TRACKER VOICE: Map display also verifies that all vehicles are doing what they're supposed to be doing. Let's check in with Vehicle Number Two. There he is.

LEE HOCHBERG: Verizon says it's not an infringement on privacy.

KELLY KURTZMAN: The company can say, as an employee of this company, our expectations that we can track your truck, track you on the job, and the employee has to agree to that, and check the box, "Yes, we agree to that."

Sharing location with public

LEE HOCHBERG: In fact, some cell phone users intentionally beam their locations over the Internet using software that can be installed on Sprint's Nextel phones. Computer programmer Chuck Fletcher has sold 30,000 copies of his program, Mologogo, to Nextel subscribers.

CHUCK FLETCHER, Co-Creator, Mologogo: An example here is CandyBabe17 is using our service and has shared her location basically with the public.

LEE HOCHBERG: Fletcher says he and his partner wrote Mologogo so customers could let their friends know where they were. To his surprise, 900 of them, like CandyBabe, allow themselves to be tracked by anybody.

CHUCK FLETCHER: We can see a couple places that she's been around town and the most recent place.

LEE HOCHBERG: So CandyBabe, her most recent spot is right along Route 75 there.

CHUCK FLETCHER: In Florida, might even be where she lives.

LEE HOCHBERG: Fletcher showed us real-time locations of subscribers all around the country. There was this man off Bernwood Drive in Florida.

CHUCK FLETCHER: We can kind of zoom in and see this guy, so this is -- his user name there is Founder1. He looks like a middle-aged gentleman, you know, with a suit and tie there.

LEE HOCHBERG: And SimpleGrin in downtown Seattle.

CHUCK FLETCHER: So, right now, SimpleGrin is right here at 5 and whatever this road is, Fourth Avenue or something like that. Yes, so he's right there.

LEE HOCHBERG: He was philosophical about the risks of people's locations being widely available.

CHUCK FLETCHER: I think there's a huge amount of benefit to be able to take advantage of sharing more information. We still have to see -- if there's going to be -- the negatives are going to outweigh that.

Are we going to have a cyber-mafia, you know, a few years from now? Maybe. Maybe criminals will get smart and take advantage of things like this. It's never really designed as a stalking tool, but it's possible that someone could, you know, look at this and say, "Oh, I want to -- this person is online right now, and they were just there. I want to go find them."

If you need to do a people hunt, right, and whether that's for good or bad purposes, hard to say, but that's this person's choice, to make their information available.

Protecting customers' records

EVAN HENDRICKS: Ultimately it goes to, how creepy does all this make you feel?

LEE HOCHBERG: Privacy advocate Hendricks fear, in the end, access to location data won't be driven by personal choice but by political and economic pressures. He notes, after 9/11, the Bush administration asked phone companies for billions of private phone records.

Federal law forbids turning them over without a court order, but most phone companies did so anyway. Verizon's landline division was hit with a $50 billion consumer lawsuit for doing so. Verizon Wireless emphasizes it withheld its phone records.

KELLY KURTZMAN: Absolutely, absolutely. We were asked, but we said, no, we would not give that information, again, you know, trying to protect the privacy of our customers. We take that very seriously.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, the company says it doesn't believe its location information is actually covered under federal privacy law. Hendricks says the industry really wants to sell that location data to stores, which will use it to target-market cell users.

EVAN HENDRICKS: Data about us and where we go and our choices is so valuable that there's always going to be sides of the company that are saying, "You know, if we can just use this information, we can increase our revenue growth by this percent." Usually the marketing people within the company win those fights.

LEE HOCHBERG: Verizon acknowledges it's looking at that market.

KELLY KURTZMAN: I think the opportunity is huge out there. And certainly if the customers are saying, "Gosh, I'd like to be notified when I'm near a Starbucks or where the next gas station might be or whatever," those are services that we're certainly looking at potentially offering in the future, but we're not looking to sell carte blanche our customers information, to say, "Gosh, we can make some money on this."

LEE HOCHBERG: Whoever makes money off it, it's clear a most-important feature for cell phone users and sellers will become like in real estate: location, location, location.