Privacy worries grow over wireless monitoring devices

Tech investors weigh question of Big Brother

The wireless industry is abuzz with plans for expanding remote monitoring of just about any device over wireless networks.

Examples range from reading water and power meters remotely, to helping police see how long a car has been parked on a city street or monitoring traffic congestion via wireless cameras.

But with the growth in the technology, there's also growing concern that Big Brother will have more eyes and ears than ever before.

"That's the scariest part of this [trend]-- the potential for Big Brother," said Rich Redelfs, general partner of Foundation Capital, which invests in wireless technologies.

In an interview at the Go Mobile 2009 conference here, Redelfs said he and his partners take into account privacy concerns when reviewing an investment proposal for a new technology. "Privacy is ultimately a moral issue, and that matters to us," Redelfs said.

"The Internet as a whole has raised the issue for how much our personal information might be seen by others," Redelfs said.

"I'd say the biggest worry is the growing use of wireless video cameras in traffic," which could be used to trace where a person has been, Redelfs said.

Much of the capability for such remote wireless monitoring has been available for several years, but now that wireless networks are faster and more widespread, the number of wireless monitoring applications has mushroomed, say analysts and attendees at Go Mobile.

Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility representatives gave separate keynote addresses at the show to underscore the trend, noting that they plan to be connecting with a wide range of wireless devices in coming months.

AT&T has mostly emphasized wireless connectivity for consumer electronics products, while Verizon seems to have a wider scope that includes machine-to-machine communications via wireless, and more.

Maurice Thompson, director of business development for Verizon's open development efforts, said the carrier is working on supporting any application over any operating system on wireless.

He said one example of what is coming is the ability to monitor home appliances wirelessly, so that a homeowner could arrange in advance for a warranty company to know when a compressor on a refrigerator is failing. With the compressor's bad health sent wirelessly to the warranty company, a dispatcher could be sent to a home to fix the machine before it fails.

The concerns over privacy are mostly abstract so far. During a panel discussion at the conference, Redelfs mentioned the example of Streetline Networks, which provides a wireless sensor that can be placed in a parking spot to determine if a car is parked there or not.

The city of San Francisco undertook a trial with the sensors on 6,000 parking spaces last fall. Streetline and the city could not be reached for an update on the trial's success.

Redelfs said the sensors could be linked to traffic police, who could be dispatched shortly after a car was parked over the time limit to issue a ticket. But Gerry Purdy, an analyst for Frost & Sullivan, said it might be better if the wireless message was somehow sent to the car's owner via their cell phone, so they could quickly move the car.

Purdy's comment drew laughter from the gathered audience, but Redelfs and another venture investor picked up on the potential for wireless monitoring to ignite concerns about police and other government groups gaining too much oversight via technology. "We're backing a company called 'Big Brother--NOT!'" joked David Lane, general partner of Onset Ventures.

Redelf said a company he backs, Dust Networks, provides the wireless networking technology behind Streetline Networks. Even so, he said his firm does take into account privacy worries in weighing a future technology for funding.

While no technology he has reviewed was actually rejected over privacy problems, he said a current funding proposal in the health care sector that he would not name might be turned down over ethical concerns.

Redelf said many factors can kill an investment, including worries over even a perception by the public of privacy and ethics concerns. Last year, Foundation Capital interviewed makers of 118 technologies who were seeking funding, but only two received funds, he said. In addition, he read lengthy proposals for another 160 technologies, meaning nearly 300 came to his attention.

"That's a typical year," he said.

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