Phone stalking or phone schmoozing?

The Wall Street Journal reports on new technology that will make it easier for cellphone users to know which of the friends in their social networks are nearby. Is this a new e-tool for building more social capital or a stalker’s wet dream?

For sure much of this is going to depend on user controls and interfaces. In a world where “friendship” can become cheapened on Facebook, will cell users want to let anyone they called a “friend” know where they are? In the same way as it may be socially hard to refuse a Facebook-won’t-you-be-my-friend request of a relative stranger or someone you dislike, imagine the next generation. Someone you don’t really like, is now sidling up to you, noting how “serendipitous” it is that you two happen to be in the same place at the same time and suggesting that you two hang out.

Viewed on the positive side, maybe propinquity software, by imposing such risks will start to raise the bar of who people call their “friends” on social networking software, and maybe it will increase the likelihood that more virtual e-ties become grounded in face-to-face real encounters.

And this starts to get closer to software that Keith Hampton (a scholar at Univ. of Pennsylvania) theorized where you could create a new latent *group* from people who attended an interesting conference or talk together, and then have the cellphone software increase the chance that these relatively weak ties could strengthen and persist over time by being activated when you were close to others in this network.

I think it will have some potential for good, but some terrible stories may lead Americans to chuck both baby and bathwater.

For more information, see original article “Spy Cells: Phones Will Soon Tell Where You Are” by Amol Sharma and Jessica E. Vascellaro (WSJ, 3/28/08), p. A1.

The article describes how Sprint Nextel has signed up hundreds of thousands of users through Loopt technology and Verizon Wireless plans to offer in the next few weeks to 65 million customers. The software reminds users that they are being tracked, lets users turn off these features at any time, and tries to shield users against

“… [I]increasingly, the wireless industry is deciding that location tracking has so much sales potential that it’s worth the risks, so long as tight safeguards are in place. It’s a result of the convergence of GPS with another digital phenomenon: a generation of young people who are comfortable sharing a great deal of personal information on social-networking Web sites and eager for still more ways to stay connected. The initial target market of location-tracking services: 18- to 24-year-olds.”Vivek Agrawal, a 22-year-old composer in Palo Alto, Calif., uses the service offered by Sprint to know where 10 friends are at any given time and organize impromptu get-togethers. ‘I’m using it amongst my closest friends,’ he says. ‘Those are the people that I’m used to asking questions like, ‘Where are you?’ ”

“The wireless industry is cracking open this new market gingerly, mindful that it could face a huge backlash from consumers and regulators if location-tracking were abused by stalkers, sexual predators, advertisers or prosecutors. ‘When it gets to privacy, that’s quite frankly an area where we can’t afford to make any mistakes,’ says Ryan Hughes, a vice president at Verizon Wireless.”

Certain protections are in place: Among them, “cellphone users who sign up can make their whereabouts available only to a network of friends who also buy the service. They can view each others’ location any time, with the proviso that users always can temporarily turn off location-tracking. The service doesn’t continuously update, because that would overtax the carrier networks and consume too much battery life; it “refreshes” every 15 minutes or so, and users can always manually refresh….Children under 14 can’t sign up. And for the first two weeks, new users are to get several messages reminding them that the service is on and that they’re being tracked.”

Customers have to sign a waiver of any liability from customers’ location being disclosed. The service will eventually cost several dollars a month, but Sprint is initially offering it free as a promotion.

A whole range of products are being offered, Loopt, Whrrl (by Pelago), oneConnect (on Yahoo)

Also, see the Peersonalizer: a Facebook application and a module inside the free, downloadable WiPeer software developed by lead researcher Professor Roy Friedman’s team in 2007. [WiPeer makes direct wireless (WiFi) communication between computers possible – without intermediary devices (such as Internet routers) – at distances of up to 900 ft.]. This software could help you find other Facebook friends in proximity, even without an Internet connection.

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