Wireless Systems Design

Can Access And Privacy Survive Next-Generation Systems?

The mechanistic world view, taking the play of physical particles as ultimate reality, found its expression in a civilization which glorifies physical technology that has led eventually to the catastrophes of our time. Possibly the model of the world as a great organization can help to reinforce the sense of reverence for the living which we have almost lost in the last sanguinary decades of human history.—Ludwig von Bertalanffy

At first, access and privacy seem to be opposing concepts. One person's need for access often triggers another's need for privacy. But if we are to heed Bertalanffy's warning about our reductionist view of technology, we'll need to understand that access and privacy are really complementary sides of the same coin. In our present telecommunications environment, the degree to which a user is known by the system has yet to be defined by the laws of our society. Therein lies a subtle but powerful constraint that can undermine the deployment of next-generation telecommunications systems.

Much depends upon the intelligent network of the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Because the end device (the telephone) is dumb and the network is smart, the network never knows exactly who is using the device. For example, when a caller dials 911, emergency services are triggered by the location of the telephone. The location of the service is cataloged in the 911 system, but never the phone's user. Because users of the PSTN aren't required to log into the system, 911 doesn't know who you are. It only knows where you are.

This approach explains why you cannot easily block your teenager from making long-distance telephone calls. Again, the phone doesn't know who is dialing. Nor can the network differentiate important conversation from frivolous teenage banter. Conversely, an intelligent end device requires that the user log in. It then knows exactly who is using the device by invoking a pre-configured user profile. A user profile could block all unwanted information (telemarketing, for example). It also could restrict access to long-distance calling. Such a profile could even personalize the presentation of information to the user.

As the end device gets smarter, however, who gets to know the identity of a user on that intelligent end device? Upon whose radar do we want to appear? The desire for privacy drives us to immediately answer, "None." But what about in an emergency situation? Should a system always have the ability to know exactly who and where you are via the state of the user device?

As more and more electronic devices find their way into our lives, location-based functionality will find its way into our devices. Unfortunately, we don't have a choice about whose radar we're on. Users cannot ask the phone company to remove their phones from the 911 system because they want privacy. We're just now seeing the unintended consequences of location-based technologies and applications.

This scenario becomes real in the deployment of location-based cellular services like e-911. As it stands, most location-based cellular services can be turned on or off by the user's device. When they are on, there is no privacy. Your telltale signal can be tracked by cellular 911. It also can be tracked by commercial companies, which have been waiting for location-based services to get here so that they can target their advertisements to you and your device as you approach their stores.

This ambiguity about our privacy has become prevalent in automobile telematics and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITSs). In the ITS world, service providers capture a lot of data across the various technologies and systems. Most have privacy policies in place. Yet the access to that user data has been inconsistent. It depends sometimes on who is requesting it and the associated severity. For example, can a judge use telematic automobile information to prove the presence of a suspect in an area at a particular time? The technology behind location-based automobile services could be a powerful tool for law enforcement. But is that the purpose of an Intelligent Transportation System?

Here are extreme examples of this grand dichotomy: Some users are xenophobes who don't want to be known by any system. They would remove themselves from all systems, even at the expense of losing potential emergency services. Others find user anonymity unnecessary. They would go as far as installing an electronic chip under their skin for convenience. How can we build a next-generation communications system with such extremely different philosophies driving user requirements?

It might be said, then, that the degree to which the user is known by the system and its administrative applications has yet to be defined by the laws of our society. It also could be said that we haven't defined the laws that dictate the details of our privacy because we haven't yet decided who we want to become.

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