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Somebody's Watching You -- and It's Your Cell Phone

There's a ball game you're dying to see. It's on a Tuesday. At 1 p.m.

So you call your boss, fake a cough, and toss in a sneeze for effect. "I have a fever," you say. "I'm highly contagious. I'll stay home."

Come 1 p.m., you're at the ballpark, feeling great about the ruse. Only back at the office, your slightly suspicious boss has decided to use the latest software to see whether you were telling the truth. The software connects to your phone, which you've brought to the game, and the phone's GPS device reveals that you're at the stadium and not home in bed.

Currently, 100 million cell-phone users have a GPS device in their phone that can pinpoint the phone's location. In addition, software companies use GPS coordinates to retrieve information stored in public databases. Point your cell phone at a house, for example, and it could tell you the phone number -- or the average home price in the neighborhood.

Cell phone companies are reluctant to release such data because of privacy concerns. But one company -- Sprint/Nextel -- has always allowed access to the geographic information from the chips in its phones.

At the moment, Sprint/Nextel customers can download third-party software that allows them to broadcast their location on the Internet to their friends. This software is opt-in: Customers decide who can see their coordinates.

Indeed, strict privacy regulations govern any third-party software application developed for Sprint/Nextel authorized services.

"The vendor or the applications would be covered by the Sprint [privacy] agreement," says Jenny Walsh, a Sprint spokeswoman. Sprint will not share information about your location without your consent unless your life is in danger --say, if you call 911.

But if you sign up for third-party software that's not authorized by Sprint/Nextel, your privacy is not guaranteed. To protect yourself, privacy experts suggest reading all privacy policies for any software you download to your mobile phone -- there should be language indicating whether your information could be sold to a vendor.

And then there's the matter of your work phone. Companies are not obligated to reveal whether they have GPS software for the phones they give employees. This worries Lauren Gelman, associate director at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University.

"I think where you are is a particularly private thing," Gelman says. "And we understand that the people in our vicinity [know] where we are but it's very different when people who we can't see know where we are."

Of course, technology can only go so far. If only ballgame boy had been wise enough to leave his company cell at home on his pillow.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Melody Joy Kramer