This article has nothing to do with genealogy. However, a newsletter reader sent a message today asking a question about technology, and I thought others might be interested in the answer:
Have you heard of some type of computerized system or tool that works with a cell phone? A friend told me that when she received a cell phone call, the caller claimed that he could use this complimentary tool to tell her exact location. She lives on a farm down South. Her caller friend claimed that he could tell exactly where she was standing on the farm, while her friend was on a cell to cell call with her. Have you ever heard anything like this?
ANY law enforcement agency or the cell phone company the woman uses can see that information. In addition, she can voluntarily allow others to see her location by signing up for any of a dozen other services. However, voluntary location sharing is under her control.
Most cell phones today include GPS (Global Positioning System) hardware although there are a few exceptions. If your cell phone does include the GPS hardware, the cell phone company can determine the location of that cell phone, often within ten feet or so. If you have one of the cell phones without GPS hardware, the cell phone company can still determine which cell phone towers are within range of your location. If three or more cell towers are picking up your signals at the same time, the cell phone company can use "triangulation" to determine your location, plus or minus a mile or so, and sometimes even more precisely.
All cell phone companies share this information with law enforcement agencies on request.
The law enforcement agencies and cell phone companies are the only ones who can legally see the information without the customer's permission. Of course, it is always possible that some dishonest person bribed a police officer or a cell phone company employee to gain access to the information. Likewise, a dishonest police or cell phone company employee might use the information for illegal purposes.
Police departments use this information frequently to solve crimes, to find kidnappers, to find stolen cars (once they find the thief's cell phone number), and to find Alzheimer's victims who have wandered off (assuming the Alzheimer's victim has a cell phone with them).
So, yes, it is possible for your cell phone company or a law enforcement agency to determine where you are, sometimes plus or minus a very few feet.
Next, there is VOLUNTARY sharing of that information.
For instance, my daughter and I share permission to see each other's location at all times. I can see where she is at any time, plus or minus about ten feet or so, and she can see my location as well. That assumes that we have our cell phones with us. Of course, I don't keep many secrets from my daughter.
We use Google Latitude to share our locations. You can see a typical screen shot from Google Latitude to the left. You can learn more about Google Latitude at http://www.google.com/latitude
Google Latitude is one such service, but there are others.
One service that I love is Apple's "Find Your iPhone or iPad." If the iPhone or GPS-equipped iPad is ever lost or stolen, you can determine its exact location. The service does require configuration of the iPhone or iPad BEFORE it is lost or stolen, however. More information can be found at http://www.apple.com/mobileme/features/find-my-iphone.html
If you don't want your cell phone to tattle about your movements, turn it off!