Where is Mobile Phone Privacy Headed?

There has been a lot of talk recently about privacy in the context of mobile phones, primarily thanks to the recent O’Reilly Radar article pointing out that some iOS devices store users’ location information. If you think this kind of thing is interesting and/or scary, I encourage you to read the Wall Street Journal article entitled The Really Smart Phone which argues that this is just the beginning of what mobile phones can and will track. In addition to several interesting experiments that are currently underway, the article points out situations where mobile sensor data is already being used/abused:

Cellphone providers are openly exploring other possibilities. By mining their calling records for social relationships among customers, several European telephone companies discovered that people were five times more likely to switch carriers if a friend had already switched… The companies now selectively target people for special advertising based on friendships with people who dropped the service.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the direction this kind of technology could go in, and I’ve incorporated several of my ideas into two short stories: Human Legacy Project and Venom.

Both stories take place in a future United States (mostly) which has become increasingly totalitarian. The government gradually enacts legislation which gives them access to mobile phone and other sensor data which they use to track and control anyone they consider to be a dissident. Human Legacy Project tells the story of a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the life stories of everyone on the planet, and how the group is transformed into a terrorist organization by the government’s ever-tightening grip. The two parties continue to feed off of each other until the conflict culminates in an event that nobody was prepared for.

Venom is a parallel story which describes how the controlling party gains and keeps power in what was once an open and democratic system. A young engineer figures out how to build a device which she believes will lead to the ultimate sustainable democracy, but when she discovers that her ideas have been used against her, she joins the HLP in an attempt to undo the damage her life’s work has inflicted on the entire nation.

I believe the number one job of science fiction is to entertain, however I also think that it can serve as both inspiration for the future, and a stern warning.



Update (4/29/2011): Here’s another great example of sensor data being abused, this time by TomTom.

Update (5/11/2011): The government will require a special new chip in mobile phones.

1 thought on “Where is Mobile Phone Privacy Headed?

  1. *Facepalm*
    re: “Mobile phone emergency alert system to launch in US” plans by DC & NYC to chip all mobile phones with “P.L.A.N.”, this is ridiculous.
    All phones already have this capability: SMS + LBS -> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Location-based_service#Mobile_messaging
    Either GPS that became mandatory by law for 9/11 calls or “triangulation” via measuring base station signal strength overlap/ping time.
    Another brilliant example of inanity resulting from the tech-unsaviness of politicians. People in the mobile industry should just inform these policy makers that these chips are completely unnecessary and nip the problem in the bud.
    Unless these chips contain something else…


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