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Government-mandated technology capable of determining a mobile phone user's physical location dominated a daylong conference about privacy and security issues in the wireless industry, hosted by the Federal Trade Commission in Washington Tuesday.

"It's a level of information that hasn't heretofore been available," acknowledged Michael Altschul, vice president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association (CTIA).

Under rules adopted by the Federal Communications Commission, wireless carriers will begin selling phones with the tracking technology by December, 2001. The feature is intended to help 911 emergency operators direct police and paramedics to the location of cellular or PCS users when they call for help.

The tracking systems will use one of two techniques: Some phones will be sold with built-in GPS satellite receivers capable of locating themselves within 50 meters then transmitting that information over the wireless network. Another solution triangulates a phone's signal within 100 meters using an existing network of transmitters.

To recover the capital burn of complying with the FCC rules and creating the systems, carriers plan to sell services that exploit location data. For example, mobile phone users might be treated to text ads for nearby businesses, or an automated service could direct lost drivers in real time.

But in the wrong hands, the same technology could be valuable to stalkers, private investigators, and data miners who build profiles on consumers.

Industry groups vowed Tuesday to protect location data from that sort of mischief. "A consumer simply is not going to use a service that they can't trust," said John Jimison, executive director of the newly-formed Wireless Location Industry Association.

Location data would be treated with the same sensitivity as telephone subscribers' calling records, under a self-regulation proposal by the CTIA, "There's a long record of dealing with the integrity of call detail information," said Altschul. "What we propose is to continue that with location information."

Unlike consumer information gathered on the Internet, wireless location data isn't entirely unregulated: Under FCC rules, location information can't be used for anything except 911 calls without a customer's "express prior authorization."

Privacy Foundation CTO Richard Smith said his greatest concern isn't with corporations at all, but rather with law enforcement agencies, which will likely be able to use the new cell phones as tracking devices with a court order. "The cops will just love this," said Smith in an interview.

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