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Tethered to Wireless

Tethered to Wireless

Unless we take a stand, location-tracking technology could spell the end of individual freedom and privacy as we know it.

I guess you could call me a conscientious consumer. My office at home has at least one of every single essential, nonessential and downright silly electronic gadget you can think of. Never one to let money burn a hole in my pocket, I've managed somehow - through the artful combination of satellite television, fast Internet connections flashing stock quotes and news, three e-mail addresses and a killer sound system accessing the biggest MP3 collection around - to convert what was supposed to be a sanctuary of contemplation and concentration into an opportunity for perpetual distraction.

While I don't suffer any serious addictions, I, like most people, crave all kinds of things that aren't good for me. Besides the obvious chips, fast cars and John Waters films, I have a craving for distraction over concentration. In fact, most of us would do anything to avoid being alone with our thoughts. I start my car and turn on the radio; I enter my hotel room and turn on the TV; I listen to music while I cut the grass. Bad. Sometimes the temptation to screw around with my toys instead of work gets so overwhelming, I have to throw a laptop in my car and go park under a tree somewhere. Real bad.

I'm sitting in my car right now. Distractions are wireless now. It doesn't help much. Until recently, I've been a big fan of wireless technology. It's worth remembering that wireless may be news, but it's not new. The oldest, and certainly most cherished, wireless device in my house is my TV remote. On the one hand, this device is so important that I won't watch TV without holding it in my hand. On the other, it's done nothing to change the intrinsic value of TV and nothing to improve the quality of programming. In fact, it may have made it worse.

Wireless is an add-on that does nothing to improve the importance or desirability of the technology it's grafted to but somehow seems indispensable once it's added. The fawning attention wireless is getting lately seems totally out of proportion to its potential, especially given its considerable and even dangerous downside. Perhaps it's true that all the really important inventions are behind us, and this is what we've got left to get excited about. What I mean is, a person living 70 years ago, in 1931, has far more in common with us (planes, radio, home appliances, intercontinental mass transit, telephones) than with people living 70 years earlier in 1861. The difference between the telephone of 1931 and the mobile phone is mobility, a nice enhancement to be sure but, like the TV remote, not indispensable to the telephone's telephoneness.

If a new technology came along that was 20 per cent good and 80 per cent bad, would we all still get behind it? Yeah, we probably would. I suppose I should have seen this trouble coming. I finally realised wireless's potential impact during my last business trip to Singapore in March 1999. The flight was great, as usual, but nine hours is still a long time to sit. I grabbed my bag, cleared customs and jumped into the back seat of a waiting car, next to one of our regional vice presidents who was stationed there. She barely looked up from her laptop as I climbed in, and we were on our way to the office while she pounded furiously on her keyboard. I was hot and sticky, and my brain was not firing on all cylinders because of jet lag. For a while I stared blankly at the buildings whizzing by and then noticed that there was a plastic box, about the size of a pack of cigarettes, glued to the inside of the windshield. I asked the driver what it was, and he told me it was a transmitter that the government mandated for all cars in order to collect tolls for using Singapore's excellent expressways. The system had taken years to put in at an enormous cost. When I enquired about the tolls, I was surprised to learn that they were very low, almost nominal.

I turned to the regional VP and said: "Why would the government bother to put in such an expensive system to collect so little revenue?"

Seeming to take no notice of my question, she scowled at her screen and periodically tapped the mouse button. While I'd been gazing out the window, she had attached her cell phone to a port on her laptop and was attempting to send some e-mail. The signal strength on her phone fluctuated wildly as we wound around the downtown skyscrapers. Finally she looked at me rather crossly and said: "This almost never works without dropping the connection - can't you get your people to fix it? - and anyway, they didn't put that toll system in to collect tolls, they put it in to keep track of where people are!" Creepy. That one angry, run-on sentence told me everything I didn't want to know about the wireless revolution. That she couldn't wait the additional 10 minutes to get to the office to send her e-mails seemed downright nuts. That a government would use this technology to pinpoint the whereabouts and movements of its citizens seemed downright sinister. The possible applications of wireless fall into three distinct categories, and two of them are bad. Besides the obvious and perhaps only real benefit - a mobile phone's ability to pinpoint a caller's location in an emergency - this is technology with the power to harass and the power to invade privacy in profound and heretofore unimaginable ways.

Time to pull out the ol' moral compass, folks. As both purveyors and potential users and abusers of this technology, CIOs, individually and collectively, must insist, either by legislation or policy, that our companies protect the fundamental privacy not only of our customers but of our fellow employees. It's time to decide what we will and won't do for a paycheque, because if we don't, the golden age of IT - the notion of information technology as a constructive force - is over. Making mobile phones capable of tracking locations will involve planting GPS chips in the handsets or installing new infrastructure in cell sites. The billions spent in compliance to outfit the mobile phones is being shouldered entirely by the cellular providers, which plan commercial uses for the technology to recoup their costs. Think telemarketers' calls at dinnertime are annoying? Imagine walking past a chemist when suddenly your phone rings. You answer, and a recorded message tells you that the store you're standing in front of has a sale on bunion pads. Imagine a stalker being able to dial into a service and get the exact location of a member of your family.

Imagine any way this information might be misused and someone will try it. Perhaps hundreds of thousands of people will simply pitch their phones off a bridge rather than put up with this nonsense. But for many, who for practical or policy reasons carry a phone for work, that isn't an option. Will you implement tracking systems to report on your fellow employees' movements out of the office? Will you sell the information to marketers? Getting effective governance in place is not somebody else's problem. It is our problem because, in the end, we'll be the ones charged with making it work. We need to look up from our distractions for a moment and fix this. v Anonymous has been a CIO at household-name companies for more than 12 years

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