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Monday, January 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Software gives cell customers say over who's tracking them
By Bruce Meyerson
NEW YORK Now that wireless companies can track a mobile phone's location, customers will want to control exactly who knows where they are.
Bell Labs says it has developed a network software engine that can let cellphone users be as picky as they choose about disclosing their whereabouts, a step that may help wireless companies introduce "location-based services" in a way customers will find handy rather than intrusive.
At an industry conference this week, researchers for the Bell Labs division of Lucent Technologies plan to describe how their technology addresses the conflicting demands of speed, privacy and personalization on a live telephone network.
Their programming approach enables users to specify what location information is shared, when, with whom, how and under what circumstances.
While one U.S. mobile-phone operator, Redmond-based AT&T Wireless, offers a "Find Friends" feature that's somewhat analogous to a buddy list in instant messaging, location-based services have mostly remained an unfulfilled promise.
More recently, under a federal mandate requiring cell carriers to pinpoint the whereabouts of any customer who calls 911 during an emergency, expensive network upgrades have made wireless companies more eager to deploy services that can use these capabilities for a profit.
Examples of such services could include the ability for restaurants and other businesses to send a solicitation by text message to a cellphone when its owner wanders within range of those merchants.
Other applications might include the ability to locate co-workers and customers.
While many cellphone users might like to be notified of a nearby restaurant or find it helpful to let others track their movements, most would rather not expose themselves to everywhere-they-go surveillance.
Bell Labs said it used a "rules-driven" approach to programming that can take personalization to a less-rigid level without bogging down the computing power of a network.
While not all users will want elaborate personalization, wireless providers would prefer the flexibility to service a variety of customers on one network.
"You may have a power user who's very concerned about being able to show his or her location to different types of customers and family," said Rick Hull, director of Network Data and Services Research at Bell Labs. "There may be notions about important customers and less important customers, breaking deals," he said.
"Maybe for his wife he wants to give very accurate information about his location, but for someone else only wants to give his location within 15 miles. Maybe he doesn't want one customer to know that he's visiting another customer's site," Hull said.
Bell Labs said it hopes the technology will be ready for commercial deployment next year.
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