It’s a fine line between targeted marketing, cellphone stalking


Posted June 08, 2014, at 12:43 p.m.

Here’s a quick question relating to your privacy: How much and what kinds of geotracking do you think are acceptable?

Geotracking is the science (some would say art) of finding a person by way of his or her cellphone or other electronic device. It could provide an answer to that nagging question, “Do you know where your teenager is right now?”

It could also be the means to all kinds of mischief.

The apps included with many of today’s smartphones — or available for purchase — can track those phones’ locations. Advertisers pay to know where phone users are in the lightning round of modern commerce; walk into some stores and almost instantly your phone receives info about products that someone knows you’ll want to buy there.

Knowing someone’s location in real time could be a lifesaver. Consider the aging parent diagnosed with dementia who wanders away from home. Tracking that individual might be critical. However, as with all technological advances, it can be abused.

That worries U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, who has introduced what he calls the Location Privacy Protection Bill. It would ban what amount to “stalking” apps that people might use to keep too close an eye on a loved one. That part of the bill has strong support from opponents of domestic violence.

The second part of Franken’s bill would require companies to get a person’s permission before collecting location data from the person’s phone or other device and sharing the data with anyone. That’s a huge concern for corporations, whose executives see big profit potential in “geolocation marketing” of their products.

The Franken bill first appeared in 2012. It was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee but never reached the Senate floor. While concern over privacy and cybersecurity may bolster support in some quarters, observers seem split on whether it has a chance to pass during the current session of Congress.

Meanwhile, companies are making trackers available and affordable. One of them — designed with the daredevil in mind — includes an emergency button to be pressed only in case of life-threatening situations. Its maker says it can trigger a search-and-rescue operation.

Businesses have legitimate reasons for upping the geolocation ante, especially in web-based trade. Examples might include making special offers to consumers in specific locales, complying with varying state or local laws and trying to detect cyber criminals posing as clients.

MasterCard began testing a system in February aimed at reducing fraudulent card transactions abroad. A cardholder’s mobile phone needs to be switched on and be nearby when a card transaction occurs.

MasterCard says the procedure — which requires cardholders to opt in if they want it — should also reduce the number of legitimate charges that are denied.

Then there’s the profit motive. MasterCard said in one promotional piece that the new system would allow retailers with geolocation technology to ping your phone offering a special deal as you drive by, or upping your rewards points based on your location.

Look for such targeted offers for people carrying phones to increase. If other companies use the MasterCard model of asking consumers to opt in, we should get a clearer picture of just how much personal information we’re willing to divulge.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer, ME 04412, visit or email


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