- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2003

LONDON (AP) — It’s geared toward worried parents and suspicious bosses and might seem Orwellian to some: the first major commercial service that traces people’s locations using their mobile phones.

The mapAmobile service, started last month across Britain, charges $48 a year and 48 cents per request. It claims accuracy to within 50 yards.

Even more precise services are likely in the United States within the next year as more phone models come with Global Positioning System chips already installed.

The Carphone Warehouse PLC, which runs the British service, touts it as offering parents peace of mind or allowing businesses to check on the whereabouts of wayward staff.

“We are responding to a real consumer need by bringing to the market a reliable, affordable and effective way for people to locate each other without disturbing them,” said Chief Executive Andrew Harrison.

The consent of the cell phone owner is required, Mr. Harrison said. Even so, privacy advocates say there’s potential for abuse.

“Given that we know that schoolboys have hacked into the Pentagon computer, nothing is secure,” said Barry Hugill of the rights group Liberty. “Once the technology is there, it is there to be abused, and I find it very hard to believe that it would be watertight. Potentially, we could see stalkers moving in on the act.”

The service is available from Britain’s four main wireless operators, Vodafone Group PLC, Orange SA, mmO2 PLC and T-Mobile International AG, and smaller operators Virgin, Fresh and 3 Mobile are expected to join, too.

Kate Marriot of the Mobile Data Association, an industry group, said mapAmobile was the first service “to be launched on such a large-scale commercial basis.”

MapAmobile locates users by tracing the unique identifier each cell phone transmits and triangulating among the network towers that transmit and receive signals to and from phones.

Law enforcement agencies have used this method to track suspects for years, though accuracy varies between urban and rural areas. Last year, the FBI arrested a man accused of planting pipe bombs in Midwestern mailboxes after he turned on his cell phone in Nevada.

Location requests can be made to mapAmobile using text messaging, by calling a toll-free number or on the Internet. It is available 24 hours a day, but will only work if the mobile phone of the person being traced is switched on.

The provider says safeguards are in place to protect civil liberties. Not only do cell phone users have to consent to being tracked, they are sent regular text messages to remind them their phones can be traced, and they can request a list of the people who can locate them.

Niki Torrance, a spokeswoman for MI International, the British company that created the technology, said thousands of people have signed on.

She said her company is talking to potential partners in the United States and continental Europe, and said the service could be available to U.S. consumers this fall.

Similar tracking services that aim to help parents or caretakers are already available in the United States using GPS technology, including Digital Angel, which uses a pagerlike unit worn by the person being traced.

GPS is more accurate than cell phone-tower triangulation, which is why it is being added to many new phones to help emergency crews respond to 911 calls from wireless phones.

As more phones get such chips, some U.S. wireless carriers are exploring using them to offer location-tracking services similar to map-Amobile.

Public safety is driving development of location-based services in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission has said wireless providers must be able to locate 911 calls from wireless phones to within about 100 feet by 2005.

Companies that want to market goods and services over cell phones are also expected to develop technology to find callers and pitch products.

Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. carrier, could start such a service next year, spokesman Jim Gerace said. He said it could be popular among companies with big vehicle fleets that want to track the positions of their drivers.

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