Hooray for location-based mobile phone spies!

10 Mar 2009

Whenever the topic of location-based services comes up, the question of privacy (hopefully) isn't far behind. Whether it's push-coupons to your handset, a mobile IM friend finder or a child-tracking app, some people always wonder where all this is going, and if there's an Orwellian Big Brother state waiting on the other side.

Service providers with LBS-type offerings are generally careful these days to make sure they are opt-in/opt-out. The problem is when less ethical LBS services pop up that give the entire sector a bad name.

On Sunday, for example, The Age reported that the Australian Consumers' Association has warned that mobile phone monitoring services offered by private investigators to help people track spouses suspected of marital indiscretions are illegal under the Surveillance Devices Act.

One example is Spousebusters, a company that offers monitoring software for Series 60, Blackberry and Windows mobile devices. The software records info like calling records and SMSs and sends them to a web page so the suspicious client can see who their spouse has been calling. The software can also secretly monitor conversations and, if it has GPS, track the phone on GoogleMaps.

Spousebusters says the service can be used legally, and cautions clients not to cross that line (whatever it might be). The ACA says it's only legal if the person being tracked has consented to it, which presumably defeats the purpose of tracking cheating spouses.

None of this is new, of course. A number of companies have been selling mobile phone spy software for a few years now, FlexiSpy being the most infamous. Google "spy mobile phone" and look at all the sponsored links and spy-phone shopping tips you'll get at the top of the hit list. One even appears in the Age article. (I wouldn't advise clicking on any of them - the ACA says that many such links are lures either for porn sites or phishing scams that want to log your mobile number for spamming purposes later.)

I admit I'm not a fan of any business that encourages spouses to wallow in their suspicions of cheating, justified or not. Still, one positive aspect of ethically dubious businesses like Spousebusters is that they do spur debate on what is acceptable and what's not with location-based services.

And this is a good thing. LBS can be a tough sell if you roll it out without addressing the inevitable worries from people who find tracking a scary proposition on paper. There are many benefits to LBS, but there are also many benefits to privacy and anonymity, and open, public debate is the best way to determine how both can be balanced - so long as legit service providers show up to make their case and show regulators how LBS can be done ethically.

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