Mobile Society – Do cell phones invade our privacy? Contribution from Hamish MacLeod, Mobile Broadband Group

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Mobile Society – Do cell phones invade our privacy?

Contribution from Hamish MacLeod, Mobile Broadband Group

Since Cellnet (now O2) and Vodafone first launched their mobile networks in 1985, the capability of mobile phone technology has progressed dramatically.

In those early days, it was only possible to make a simple telephone call; you could not even leave a voicemail message. A handset cost about £2,000 and it was expected that only about 250,000 people would ever own a mobile phone in the UK. Customers regularly ended up speaking to complete strangers, as the analogue signals interfered with each other.
Today, over 50 million people in the UK own a mobile phone, about 85% of the population. The digital GSM signals have made crossed lines a thing of the past and in the UK, we send about 25 billion text messages and talk on the mobile for about 60 billion minutes per year. Increasingly, as the technical capabilities of the networks and the handsets evolve, the mobile is being used in ever more advanced ways. To give just a few examples:

  • Browsing for information on the Internet

  • Picture messaging and video calling

  • Requesting location information such as quickest routes or nearest bank/chemist etc.

  • Locating another mobile user

  • On-line mobile gaming

  • Specialist applications such as remote health monitoring of patients

Some argue that mobile phones – intrusive ring tones, the irritation of listening to half a conversation on the train and being constantly available to the boss – are the bane of their existence. But for most, mobile phones have delivered enormous benefits. Their uptake first accelerated in the corporate market, where businesses experienced significant gains in productivity, derived from more flexible working and improved communication. Today, as prices continue to fall, almost everyone owns a mobile. In the future, customers will increasingly look to the mobile as a source of information and entertainment, for music, games and even TV. In addition, a good proportion of customers will still regard the mobile as a safety tool. There are countless tales of mobiles being involved in emergency rescue. A recent example appeared on the ZDNet news site in January 2005:

Mobile phones have yet again proved their worth to society after the big role they played in the Boxing Day Asian tsunami disaster.
The most common use of them, of course, is in tracking down tourists who have been stranded after the tidal waves. One story posted on Yahoo News said that 36 British tourists and 35 Hong Kong-based workers were rescued in Sri Lanka after their mobile phones, which had international roaming, were traced by the rescuers.”
This story illustrates very well the benefits of one’s location being known. But it is also a good example of the digital footprints we now create. While detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, the thief that recently stole the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard’s Aston Martin and triggered the vehicle’s mobile tracker system will have plenty of time to reflect on this. Law enforcement agencies can obtain data from operators for the investigation of crime but only in accordance with legislation set down by parliament. People recognise that this is for their general protection not an unwarranted invasion of their privacy. Mobiles are not really different in this regard to many other technologies. We leave a digital trail when we use a cash machine, board an aeroplane, enter the central London congestion zone or pass a CCTV camera.

The mobile operators, like banks, airlines and others, are custodians of sensitive personal customer data and take that responsibility very seriously. In addition to a long track record of compliance to privacy and data protection regulation, the mobile industry has developed codes of practice to give extra protection to customers where it might be needed. For example, in September 2004, the mobile operators published a code for location services. Although the law requires that no phone can be located without the consent of the subscriber, we felt that additional measures would be helpful. Among other points, the code requires that regular messages be sent to remind customers that their phone can be located.

Some problems, though, are outside the control of the operators. Recent concerns have arisen with the clandestine use of digital cameras, including the ones embedded in mobile phones. If organisations, such as schools and sports clubs, feel it would be beneficial, it is a matter for them to set rules to restrict the use of cameras on their premises. The mobile operators cannot interfere with pictures being sent person to person via a mobile and so it is the responsibility of individuals to behave appropriately and for enforcement agencies to be prepared to respond when they don’t.
In conclusion, the mobile operators, over the last twenty years, have had an excellent record for protecting the privacy of their customers. Their trust is just too important for it to be otherwise. But it is a dynamic environment and legislators, regulators and operators should always be on the look out for potential problems, without losing sight of what a miraculous little device the mobile is – a device that nearly a quarter of the planet’s population now keeps in its pocket.

We welcome the opportunity to join Spiked-online’s debate.

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