Would you use a mobile application (downloaded to your mobile phone/device) that helped you find the nearest gas station, sent your device e-coupons for nearby shops, warned you when your teenager leaves a pre-set geographic area, or allows you and your friends to locate one another on an interactive map? From the relatively mundane to the cutting edge, Location Based Services (“LBS”) have arrived. Driven by the recent availability of mobile devices capable of running downloadable applications (e.g., smartphones and other 3rd generation (“3G”) network devices), the potential uses of device location to improve users’ overall mobile experience is virtually limitless.
But, as with any technology, LBS carries with it certain risks – including the potential for misuse. No mobile device user should be “tracked” without their knowledge and consent (or in the case of minors or employees provided a device by their parents or employers, respectively, at least without the user’s knowledge). It’s therefore critical that mobile device users be aware of how their device location is being gathered, used, and shared – and by whom!
The use of mobile device location is not new – it's always been used by wireless carriers to provide mobile service. Indeed, in order for mobile communications to work, the carrier (e.g., T-Mobile) must remain aware of the approximate location of all mobile devices using the carrier’s network. This is how the carrier is able to route wireless communications (calls, text messages, etc.) to and from the devices even as they are moving. It’s also how carriers provide enhanced 9-1-1 (“E9-1-1”) service for mobile devices – i.e., allowing carriers to provide approximate device location to emergency officials in response to a 9-1-1 call made from a mobile device. In other words, whenever a mobile device is turned on and is within range of a carrier’s cell tower(s), the device sends periodic signals that are read by those tower(s). Communications directed to or from the device are then routed to the nearest cell tower, and as the device moves closer to a different tower, the carrier’s network redirects the communications to the new tower.
Only recently have on-device applications progressed to the point of using such network-based location information to facilitate the application. Thus, for example, by identifying the zip code of the cell tower to which the mobile device is currently connected, the weather forecast displayed on a mobile web page can be easily customized based on current location – as opposed to requiring the user’s entry of the location or defaulting to a preset address. Similarly, a search entered on a mobile search engine can be automatically enhanced to provide the most geographically relevant results. (E.g., if searching for pizza, the results can focus on the zip code in which the device is currently operating.) It should be noted, however, that due to technical constraints, the network-based location data is not always precise – ranging from simply the location of the nearest cell tower to within tens of meters of the device – depending on various factors.
Many newer mobile devices also contain a built-in Global Positioning Satellite (“GPS”) component (similar to navigation systems in automobiles). These GPS-enabled devices measure distances from various government-owned satellites to pinpoint the device location. Once the device identifies its own location, that information can be utilized by an application (e.g., a mapping program to provide driving directions) or it can be communicated to others (e.g., a social networking application that shares current location among friends) using the ordinary communication protocols of the device. GPS location data can be incredibly accurate – with precision measured within a few feet.
T-Mobile LBS applications
Where T-Mobile directly provides an LBS service/application (whether network-based or GPS), the device user will be provided notice of how location information will be gathered, used, and stored, and the user will be required to give affirmative consent for the use of their location information. Because the issues associated with any specific service/application will vary (e.g., using location information for driving directions vs. sharing location information with friends), users should carefully review the specific T-Mobile terms and conditions applicable to an LBS service/application for privacy implications. In this regard, T-Mobile follows the Best Practices Guidelines for Location-Based Services as established by the CTIA, the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry. See Guidelines.
Example: T-Mobile develops an enhanced “contacts” application that allows a user to share her current location with all or selected contacts in her address book; and if those contacts are also T-Mobile customers, allows the contacts to share their location information. Each user would be given notice of how the location sharing works – including how long T-Mobile would keep historical records of user location – and require an affirmative consent to share their location information. Moreover, each user would be able to revoke the sharing permission at any time. In this way, the user remains in control of whether others can or cannot have access to her current location.
Third-Party LBS applications
Given the mobile device advances that now allow users to download and run virtually unlimited third-party applications, many LBS services/applications will be provided by third-parties – and most of those will use GPS technology. (For more information regarding third-party applications, click here.) Because T-Mobile does not ultimately control or oversee the operations of such third parties, it’s critical that users carefully review the third-parties’ privacy policies and other terms before they authorize the sharing of location information. Users should always be given options for managing when and how their location information can be shared.
The LBS revolution has begun. Used properly, LBS applications promise unprecedented benefits to mobile device users. But users must remain vigilant in protecting their own privacy and managing when and how their location information is used by the various services/applications they place on their device.
1. Various GoogleTM mapping applications utilize essentially the same technology to locate a mobile device. It should be noted, however, that Google has independently mapped the cell tower locations of the major U.S. carriers (including T-Mobile) and is not receiving real-time location information directly from such carriers – even on AndroidTM devices such as the T-Mobile G1TM with GoogleTM or the T-Mobile MyTouch 3GTM with GoogleTM.