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Promising New Technology Prompts 'Big Brother' Fears - 2002-03-12


Imagine a technology that would allow people to locate each other quickly and easily, without even making a phone call. "Presence technology" is already in use on a limited scale, but may soon be as common as mobile phones. While many welcome the development critics caution the technology could be misused.

The most common type of presence technology already widely in use is instant messaging, or sending short texts back and forth via computer. Users can quickly determine if friends are online.

Now, cellular phone companies are beginning to install messaging systems that will allow cell phone users to determine if people they wish to contact are available.

Product Marketing Manager for Motorola's Wireless Messaging Division Yves Raymond says people will find it easier to get in touch. "You know, the days of voice mail, or calling a cell phone that, in turn, the person is not there to answer, may go away. Where in turn, now, we will have better view of a person's availability in situation," he said.

Presence technology will allow cell phone users to message multiple people at once. A cell phone user will also be able to alert friends that he or she is available, without actually calling.

Internet Security Consultant Richard Smith says the newer technology will also allow users to program their cell phones to beep if a friend is nearby. "I think it's going to create interesting interaction between people. The whole idea that my phone's going to buzz me when somebody else is around - well, that may be good, if I'm in the mood to see someone. But if I'm not, I'm going to feel sort of controlled here," he said.

Cell phone owners will have the option to turn off the systems. However, that may not prevent them from being located in an emergency situation.

The U.S. Congress has mandated that cell phone companies be able to determine the location of a phone within about 30 meters for emergency purposes. That way, if people cannot describe their locations when calling emergency services, police and rescue teams can still find them.

The cellular phone companies are in the process of installing systems to make this possible, and in post-September 11 America, surveys show most people want such services.

But Richard Smith, the internet security consultant, says law enforcement might also want to use that technology to find out, for example, who is nearby when a crime occurs. "You know, these technologies could potentially help catch the criminals, and that's maybe a good thing. But we do have in America limits on what law enforcement can do, you know, to catch people," Mr. Smith said.

Privacy advocates argue people who want to remain anonymous in society might not be able to with these technologies.

As the technology advances, Richard Smith says the debate about privacy will as well.

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