When cellphones won’t let you get lost

When cellphones won’t let you get lost

Two new questions arise, courtesy of the latest advancement in cellphone technology: Do you want your friends, family, or colleagues to know where you are at any given time? And do you want to know where they are?

Obvious benefits come to mind. With new services called Loopt and Buddy Beacon that take advantage of the Global Positioning System (GPS) chips embedded in many cellphones, parents can track the whereabouts of their phone-toting children. And for those who are fond of sharing their comings and goings on the Internet, such services are a natural next step.

Sam Altman, the 22-year-old co-founder of Loopt, said he came up with the idea in early 2005 when he walked out of a lecture hall at Stanford University. “Two hundred students all pulled out the cellphones, called someone and said, ‘Where are you?’" he said. “People want to connect."

But such services point to a new truth of modern life: If GPS made it harder to get lost, new cellphone services are now making it harder to hide. “We seem to be getting into a period where people are closely watching each other," said Kevin Bankston, a staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. “There are privacy risks we haven’t begun to grapple with."

But the practical applications outweigh the worries for some converts. Kyna Fong, a 24-year-old Stanford University graduate student, uses Loopt, offered by Sprint Nextel. For $2.99 (Rs119) a month, she can see the location of friends who also have the service, represented by dots on a map on her phone, with labels identifying their names. They can also see where she is.

Fong can control whom she shares the service with, and if at any point she wants privacy, Fong can block access. Some people are not invited to join—like her mother.

So far, the market for social-mapping is nascent—users number in the hundreds of thousands, industry experts estimate. But almost 55% of all mobile phones sold today in the US have such technology, according to Current Analysis, which tracks trends in technology. So far, it’s most popular among the college-aged set.

But others have found different uses. Altman said one customer bought it to keep track of a parent with Alzheimer’s. Helio, which offers the Buddy Beacon service, said some use it to track employees.