Don’t Call It a Cell Phone: Just Call It a Trackable Tether


The iPad killers after the crime.

Last week, I was walking across our family room carrying the iPad I got as a gift last summer. Suchi and Raglan, our Tibetan Terrier puppies, came barreling down the hall playing tug of war with a stuffed elephant, collided with my knees…and the iPad hit the stone floor, screen side down. 

Luckily, it was repairable. When I went to pick it up on Friday, there was a long line of people at the Apple Store, waiting for the new iPhone 5.  Everywhere I went all week, people were talking about whether their next cell phone would be the iPhone 5, an Android, or even the new Windows 8 OS on the new Lumina phone.

Whenever I near people talking about this, I wonder why we even bother calling them phones at all.  Regardless of operating system, the devices we carry in our pockets are nothing less than trackable tethers that extend our working hours and remove any remnants of privacy. 

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not against cell phones. Having worked for the creator of the camera phone, Philippe Kahn, at Starfish Software, it would be more than hypocritical for me to rail against cell phones while enjoying the lifestyle that they helped to pay for. 

But this data-mining bonanza for corporate America seems to be completely invisible to many people. That’s what worries me. Do we really understand the amount of information we’re sharing, just by carrying a trackable piece of electronics with us wherever we go?

Fifty years ago, George Jetson ran into a number of comical situations during the Jetson’s TV series that showed just how “findable” his electronics made him. But how funny would we think it was if our version of  Mr. Spacely used the cell phone to find us when we were hoping not to be found?

If you haven’t seen Hanna Barbera’s futuristic farce in a while, take a look at the opening sequence — pay attention to the people behind George Jetson on the moving sidewalk. They’re carrying devices that look a lot like cell phones and iPads — albeit with antennas, since nobody in 1962 could imagine today’s miniature technology. 

Why I Don’t “Check In”

Most Internet users know (or at least suspect) that when we don’t pay for the product — be it Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, or any other web service – then we are the product.  Data about you and me, and our behavior online, made billionaires out of Zuckerberg, Brinn, Paige, and many other Internet moguls. And sometimes that’s ok with me.

I mean, I have some control about whether or not I use Google products (I don’t), what I post on Facebook (a lot), and what data I post on other websites. But one thing I have no control over is the information my cell phone broadcasts to the world about where I go, how long I stay there, and who else is beside me while I’m there.

Fortunately, some of the tracking you see on TV cop shows is still not in wide use. But as Peter Maas told NPR’s Fresh Air program on September 12, “When you know where somebody is, what they’re doing, how long you’re there for — that could be commercially useful, if not for the cellphone company, at least to other third-party companies who have things to sell.  The U.S. has no laws on how long cell phone companies can retain that data, or what they do with it.”

Maas published a detailed look at cell phones as tracking devices on the Pro Publica website, and it’s well worth a read for anyone who carries a cell phone and has any lingering belief that they have a right to privacy. Of course, a lot of people seem to have no worries at all about being tracked 24/7. They happily check-in at every WiFi hot spot they pass, and compete to become “mayor” of their favorite coffee shop by checking in there frequently.

Divorce lawyers, district attorneys, and private investigators love this kind of behavior. For instance, a PI of my acquaintance was positively giddy recently when a man who was suing an insurance company for a back injury repeatedly checked in via Four Square at a hockey rink 40 miles from his home, with his check-ins published on his Facebook page. “Even if he isn’t playing hockey — and we think he was — there’s no place in that rink where someone with a bad back can sit comfortably. They only have backless benches and it’s a steep climb into the seats.”

Electronic Tethers

When I was a child, my father and his brothers ran a knitting mill. They worked incredibly long hours — leaving before the sun was up and often arriving home after it went down. But when they were at home, they were home.

Nothing kept them connected to the office once they walked out the door. We got one business phone call at home while I was growing up — and it was memorable because it only happened once — when a  trucker making an early morning delivery flipped a lit cigarette into a dumpster and ignited the felt scraps inside.

These days, employers aren’t shy about telling workers that using their personal cell phone number for customer calls 24/7 is a job requirement, and that email, texts, and social media messages (chat, DM’s, SKYPE, etc.) are to be expected and answered all the time. 

It’s gotten so bad that some countries have legislated against it, requiring overtime payments for digital communications outside the work week. Many of my Kiwi and European friends have two phones — one for business (paid for by the company), and a personal cell. The business phone gets turned off on weekends, holidays, and at night. 

I don’t see that happening here within my lifetime, though.

Some of it is our own fault. When I got my first email address 30+ years ago, I was eager to use it…and when I got my first notebook computer (a Tandy Model 100, serial #5) with the operating system personally coded by Bill Gates, I thought rolling over in the morning and checking my email before I got out of bed was the greatest productivity tool ever.

That was before the rest of the world was connected, of course.  Now, with Google harvesting passwords, email content, location data, photographing my house, and displaying all sorts of intrusive information, the feds admitting to tracking over 103 million Americans via cell phone without warrants and a host of data mining companies putting together detailed profiles of consumers that advertisers can buy for pennies, I feel differently.

I turn my cell phone off around 6 p.m., unless I am expecting a call from someone in another time zone, or I am hoping to hear from one of the younger members of my family. They know to use the landline (yes, we still have one) in an emergency, however. 

And if you ever see that I’ve “checked in” to a location anywhere, you can bet that “check in” was automatic when I logged onto a public WiFi network. (As far as I know, that happens only at the Tech Church, where I mentor start-ups for Tech Wildcatters, and a few other places…but I may be surprised one of these days!)

Is it Worth It?

Obviously, for most people, the convenience of a cell phone with a GPS tracker on it is well worth carrying around a portable tether.  Teenagers and young adults don’t think anything of it — the “digital natives” don’t remember a time when they weren’t always connected, and many of them got their first cell phones from parents who were quite upfront about the fact that they were getting it so they could track the kid’s whereabouts with one of the software programs sold specifically for that purpose. 

Mobilstealth and Celltrackr for instance help parents block visits to porn sites, know when kids and texting and driving, and when they’ve strayed outside of the parental approved zone.  Having raised teenagers, I understand the logic and appeal of that. 

But if you can track kids, why not just track your spouse — or your employees — the same way? With kids, I don’t need permission. Assuming that I pay the cell phone bill and purchased the phone, do I need permission to track my spouse’s whereabouts if I’m not recording his/her calls? That’s a gray area in many states.

As for employees, all you have to do is tell them you’re going to monitor their location and Internet use during work hours on any device brought into the workplace, including personally owned technology they voluntarily bring into the workplace, and you’re home free. In this economy, saying “no” might mean saying “no, thanks, I don’t want this job”, and not that many people have the luxury of walking away from an otherwise good job over privacy concerns.

I’m lucky to be one of them, thanks in part to Philippe and the camera phone. At my last job, the workload was clearly more than one full-time and one part-time person could handle, but we were constantly “encouraged” to be more productive. Any hint that we weren’t willing to work nights and weekends (which we were doing, without compensation) was met with veiled hints of problems to come and an almost parental show of disappointment on the part of superiors. 

It was always temporary — just until this project is done — of course. But that “temporary” status of too few people and too much work lasted from the day I was hired until the day I said goodbye. I suspect that my replacement has already figured out that it’s not temporary at all.

One person even had the gall to say, “Well, you know, if you were younger — some 24-year-old itching to prove yourself…”  Maybe. 

But I’m not. I’ve proven my marketing chops over and over again, for companies around the globe, and I did it while managing to make it to all except three soccer games while my sons were growing up. (I was in the hospital for one of them, and on the other side of the country for the other two. I still feel guilty about those games, though.)

So I’ll just continue to call my cell phone a trackable tether, and I’ll continue to turn it off when I don’t want to be tracked. If that’s not ok with those who employ me, then they’ll have to find another employee. I know that I’m lucky to be able to “just say no” — and I wish that we’d follow the European Union and other countries into a world where every worker can do the same.

About debmcalister

I'm a Dallas-based marketing consultant and writer, who specializes in helping start-up technology companies grow. I write (books, articles, and blogs) about marketing, technology, and social media. This blog is about all of those -- and the funny ways in which they interesect with everyday life.
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