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Cellphones as Friend Radars

Kim Hart

For some time now, there's been a lot of buzz around the possibilities for location-based services on cellphones. Sure, it can help a rescue squad find you if you're lost in the woods, and it can help you navigate your way through a strange city. But to many, the coolest part of the service is that it lets you follow your friends wherever they go.

Several analysts have told me that location-based services is the missing link for mobile social networks. Once a GPS-enabled phone hooks up with a buddy list, some of the mobile social networks, which haven't quite taken off yet, could gain some serious speed.

Maybe today's announcement that Verizon Wireless has partnered with Loopt will help boost that idea. Loopt is a mobile social network that lets people share location information, status messages and geo-tagged photos with their friends. Until now, Loopt has been available on Sprint Nextel's network, as well as the carrier's Boost Mobile brand. The partnership with Verizon Wireless will certainly make Loopt available to a much broader audience.

Services like Loopt essentially try to turn cellphones into friend radars, alerting you when you happen to be a few blocks away from a friend or helping you plan get-togethers, for instance. More and more phones these days are capable of tracking location, which raises a key question: How many cellphone users want their whereabouts shared with their friends?

That will be a tricky balance. Loopt said it gives users plenty of privacy controls.

Last month I spoke with Christine Perey, an independent analyst who follows the social networking space, and she said she predicts location-based features to be a hit on mobile networks.

"We like contextually sensitive messages, and location is a big element of context," she said. "It's one that's virtually non-existent in Web communities and relatively easy in mobile ones."

Dodgeball, which was acquired by Google, also tried to make a go of friend-finding capabilities. But it didn't seem to resonate with users. Perhaps it was just ahead of its time--maybe people are more apt to use such a feature now that they're more comfortable with mobile devices and social networks in general.

Starting in April, Verizon Wireless customer will pay $4 for access to Loopt.

Would you be OK with your friends knowing your whereabouts? Would you find this service useful?

By Kim Hart  |  March 28, 2008; 5:21 PM ET  | Category:  Kim Hart
Previous: Find Your Friends' Favorites on Facebook | Next: Lots of Questions About the Digital Transition

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Please email us to report offensive comments.

As a woman in my mid-thirties who attends a law school where the median age is 24, I've been astounded by the extent to which my younger classmates are not only willing but eager to share personal information about their daily lives via websites such as Facebook and MySpace. At any given moment, I can also tell you what many of my classmates are doing, and where, based on their "away messages" on their instant messager profiles. I suspect that services like Loopt will appeal to the same market of young adults, who have grown up online and to whom instantaneous access to information in all forms seems very normal. My friends and I in our 30's, on the other hand, have little interest in sharing so much about ourselves to anyone who may want to know.

Posted by: GoSkins | March 29, 2008 4:40 PM

Any present or former member of the Intelligence Community would see something like this is sheer INSANITY, at least as part of any NORM.

Going hiking -- that may be one thing.

In an emergency -- an ability to ACTIVATE such an option may be lifesaving.

Behind on your credit obligations -- any process server can find you without any difficulties for service of process.




Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR | March 30, 2008 6:03 AM





Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR | March 30, 2008 6:16 AM

Remember Poindexter's Total Information Awareness Project? Here's Part III. The public is a sucker. And the best/worst part is, they're paying to be a part of it.

More and more it's looking like the best option is living off the grid.

And yes I realize theirony of positing this comment on a web blog.

Posted by: Angry Liberaltarian | March 30, 2008 9:28 AM

Not surprised this is attracting some slighly crazy/paranoid luddites.

I just wanted to say as a mid-20's young adult I don't see this as terribly desirable. Yeah, I would probably jump on the bandwagon at some point if it became a fad (Yay peer pressure) but I certainly would be skeptical at first.

FYI Facebook and most other networking sites have privacy options. You can't see my profile unless I know you.

Posted by: Alan | March 30, 2008 10:56 AM

A similar capability was offered by 3G networks in Europe years ago (Europe is years ahead of the US in mobile communication). Nobody used it and it was "de-prioritized".

Posted by: Shamus | March 30, 2008 11:56 AM

As long as their will be privacy options it's fine with me. Just like a messenger service such as MSN that provides the 'appear offline' option. It lets me see who is online without letting my friends know.

Posted by: Jamal | March 30, 2008 12:32 PM

When we call it 'big brother' with its usual government conspiracy connotations, that is called 'bad.'

When we pay for it, and trust the private industry, that is called 'progress.'

As an early adopter, as well as a former Special Operations officer, I vote no on this one.

If I want to find out where one of my friends is, I'll just call or text them, rather than be some type of high-tech stalker.

Some may see this as progress. I see it as an invasion of privacy, and potentially dangerous.

Posted by: Captain John | March 30, 2008 2:05 PM

Why does everybody have to be so pessimistic and paranoid? It is only an invasion of privacy if you don't want this service. I travel every week for work and I see this as a benefit for meeting up with other regular travelers I've met in airports, client sites, hotels and social venues. Of course they would have to use it too so that is a bit of a barrier to it's usefulness.

People who would not want this service:
-Realtors whose location can give info to competitors
-"Special Operations Officers", members of the "Intelligence Community" and cops whose location may give away investigative tactics or details on an investigation
-Criminals who may have their location used as evidence in a crime they committed for example sex offenders who hang around schools
-Paranoid people
-People with abusive, treacherous friends
-Fire and rescue professionals who may have curious people and "chasers" interfere
-Very private people
-Normal people who don't want to share their location

That being said, I'm not jumping up and down about it and most people I know see it as a bit creepy. It obviously has a potential for abuse, but the larger issue with abuse is that you would have abusive friends!

Oldies - your remarks about naive, stupid, young people are unnecessary - I bet you remember when your parents/grandparents thought TV was big brother - now you're babysitting your kids with it. Just think - you'll be able to see when your kids are nearby the nursing home but don't stop to see you.

Posted by: maybe, maybe not | March 30, 2008 6:25 PM

maybe, maybe not:

Only if you are savvy enough to 'opt out' of the system....

A VERY LARGE distinction. And to be noted. As many of us, both young and old, simply go 'yes.' And maybe we should sometimes say 'maybe,' but if I were you I'd check the cookie setting on your browser before I would say - definitively - it's your choice.

As it may not be.

Unless you opt out. Which I am, of this mobile-phone tracker system, that is...

Posted by: Captain John | March 30, 2008 9:54 PM

Lets try again.

Re: 'Opting Out' or 'turning off a capability.'

The question is does it REALLY turn it off and if it does, can I turn it on for you without your being aware of this?

I recall during Vietnam, listening to a 'supposedly private' overseas call between a US soldier in Vietnam and his stateside girlfriend, who was very worried, for she was pregnant and her parents didn't know YET -- WHAT WAS SHE SUPPOSE TO DO NOW, DEAR???

Both parties to this conversation expected privacy [it was the law, after all] but at KUMA STATION in Northern Japan -- a long, long way from both Vietnam and California, our R-390s combined with rhombic antennas could hear a 5 watt illicit spy transmission half a world away from the KGB to the KCIA, to U-NAME-IT and we could hear almost anything else to boot, including this 'private conversation' on two totally different frequencies.

Just because YOU believe something is 'private' [and the law says it is [sic] but only in the USA and we weren't in the USA, were we] doesn't make it so when dealing with the masters of spy tech.

And I can assure you, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHATSOEVER, of what is really possible in most instances.

Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR | March 31, 2008 12:50 AM

continued ---

In those days, even top of the line Collins and Motorola receivers did NOT have DSP [digital signal processing.]

With DSP, a signal so weak that it is completely under the frequency noise level [all you hear is noise or static] can be pulled out of the ether, and made to be completely readable in both audio or data formats.

Today, every cycle of the radio frequency spectrum from 'DC to Daylight,' or say 40GHZS, can be intercepted, often at multiple locations around the world, recorded and scanned by computer remotely to pick out audio patterns [known voices] crypher or other digital forms of transmissions and when deemed critically appropriate, fed into Craig super computers to break codes, etc., etc.

So is anything still private these days? Of course, probably lots of things remain private, but private from whom is the question.

If something has a high enough intelligence need to a MAJOR world government, you should presume that a way to access this information may well be found that sometimes may seem like it comes from a StarWars episode in the 24th century.

Now as to your private text, voice and 'other kinds' of messages between your friends -- you might ask WHO would care what we are saying and IF the answer is no-one, then you probably have nothing to be concerned about, do you.

On the other hand, if you are communicating about a motherload of crack that just arrived in town, well now -- that's a very different matter, isn't it !!!

Posted by: BRUCEREALTOR | March 31, 2008 1:28 AM

Is it really turned off? I don't know - did you turn it off? Did you opt out? RTFM my friend.

As to signal monitoring in Vietnam, California and wherever - Of course it is monitored by the appropriate govt authorities - but so is everything. Do you have a credit card? Of course. This is really a different question altogether. Do you trust your phone co? More importantly do you trust your govt? Because it's the govt that will tell the phone company - "turn it on for this person." All of this is moot anyway because they can already use the cell towers to triangulate your position within 1/2 mile anyway - without GPS that is. I suppose the only way to fully guarantee it is turned off is to physically turn it off or take the battery out.

Nobody is a bigger fan of personal privacy than me - I don't want anyone 1/2 a world away to know about my pregnant girlfriend - but it's a fine balance between privacy and convenience - unless your 401k or wallet is a shoe box. How is this any different? They can already listen to your calls from pretty much anywhere - would anyone suggest not using the phone?

Posted by: maybe, maybe not | March 31, 2008 6:25 AM

"We like contextually sensitive messages, and location is a big element of context," she said. "It's one that's virtually non-existent in Web communities and relatively easy in mobile ones."

When you consider the relatively new practice of text-messaging spam on cell phones, this just seems like a nightmare.

I can see it now: As I walk down the street in any given city, I get constant text messages from every business that sets its radar on passing cell phones. "Beep! Come to our restaurant! Beep! Entire inventory 10% off! Beep! No, come ot OUR restaurant! Beep! Don't you need a new pair of shoes? Beep! Hey! Why are you passing our restaurant?"

Spare me.

Posted by: Ben | March 31, 2008 9:22 AM

"And now for something completely different..."

I would make use of a well-designed "friend finder" application on my cell phone, and would willingly divulge my whereabouts in order to mutually discover if I am near friends and colleagues in my network.

Note that I'm not a 23 year old social networking aficionado -- I'm an older technology professional who travels frequently. My chaotic schedule makes it impractical to call ahead and see if a friend will be in town at a particular hour to join me for coffee or a dinner, or if a professional colleague has a few minutes to spare for a face to face meeting.

So a tool that would help me connect with friends and colleagues for impromptu meetings would be a boon. Bring it on!

- Fearless

Posted by: Fearless Fool | March 31, 2008 10:01 AM

I hope that Christine Perey lets me know where she is this evening so she and I can get together and "socialize."

Posted by: Sasquatch | March 31, 2008 11:38 AM

Insane.What benefit is there to me, to share my personal whereabouts electronically?

Posted by: DanRowvell | March 31, 2008 11:38 AM

Speaking as one of those 20-somethings, our elders have a very, very good point. I don't want to have a Lo-Jack on my hip; I don't want people to know where I am at every single second of my life.

Posted by: Rptrcub | March 31, 2008 12:01 PM

Why do these companies always want to try to pry in our personal affairs. What is really the deal with this? OOOOOO man this really starting to concern me.

Posted by: Bleu | March 31, 2008 12:43 PM

I'm so scared of the phone company's new service! I'm paranoid that people are watching me! I'm unable to figure out technology! I'm afraid I won't be able to turn it off right! Wait- they can also figure out my location on my house phone? What!?!??!! I still have a house phone!

You know folks, they now make cellphones that have a dial tone when they open - would that make you feel more warm and comfortable?

Posted by: also fearless | March 31, 2008 1:15 PM

Big Brother is watching

Posted by: Sofia | March 31, 2008 2:07 PM

I know of a company that offer texting / paging service for restaurants. This eliminates those clunky pagers that they usually give out. Would the privacy freaks also get excited about this? Then someone might know where you are eating dinner? There comes a point when we have to let technology improve our lives, rather than shut ourselves in.

Posted by: Trevor | April 29, 2008 3:36 PM

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