Advances bring cell phones to the world and raise privacy questions, Poor says

The cellular telephone has evolved rapidly from a novelty item to the harbinger of a new age of global wireless communications, renewing the debate about convenience versus privacy issues, said electrical engineering professor Vincent Poor during his talk on the "wireless revolution" March 5.

With rapid advances in telecommunication and computing technologies, wireless phones are becoming smaller, better and cheaper, Poor said at his presentation for the President's Lecture Series. "Cell phones are getting more and more powerful," he said, "so computing is migrating to the cell phone, while the (personal digital assistant) is becoming a communication device."

These advances have resulted in the near-ubiquitous presence of cell phones around the world, as well as the worrisome trend of trading in privacy for convenience, he added.

Poor quoted estimates that there are now twice as many wireless telephones worldwide as there are phones wired to the wall. Part of the enormous growth is due to the cellular technology that enables emerging economies to quickly establish a telecommunications infrastructure while skipping the decades-long process of running countless miles of wire to every home and business.

"In the past year, cell phone penetration in China has increased from 12 percent to 16 percent, making China the largest cell phone market in the world," Poor said. "India has only about 3 percent penetration but an 80 percent growth rate."

The relentless " Moore's Law ," which states that computer chips double in computing capability every 18 months, assures a future of ever smaller and less expensive wireless devices with ever more dazzling capabilities to transmit and receive voice and text messages, computer files, photos, videos or anything else now moved electronically from computer to computer. Increasingly, the distinction between cell phone and computer will blur, Poor said, as systems such as "WiFi" (for wireless fidelity) make wireless networked computing commonplace.

"Conceptually, this is very simple, and it is going like gangbusters," he said. "This is just the start of a huge trend. It will become an enormous technology."

However, evolving technology will create novel yet familiar political debates, Poor predicted. For example, phones equipped with enhanced 911 ("E911") technologies that can pinpoint the location of the phone soon will be widely available. Some E911-equipped phones can be located by comparing the distance between the three closest cellular towers. Others tap into the Global Positioning System (GPS), a series of 24 satellites originally launched by the Pentagon to aid military operations.

This technology could make it impossible for the person carrying the phone to go anywhere without detection, Poor said. "From the standpoint of emergency services, it is great, but there is an unprecedented invasion of privacy," he warned.

Poor, who did his graduate studies at Princeton and returned in 1990 as a professor, will take a sabbatical next year as a Guggenheim Fellow. Poor's lecture is the last of the President's Series Lecture this year. The Webcast is available in the WebMedia lecture archives .

Contact: Evelyn Tu (609) 258-3601