As wireless monitoring device popularity grows, so do privacy worries

Tech investors weigh question of Big Brother

SAN FRANCISCO -- 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 and 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, a general partner at Foundation Capital, a venture capital firm 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 technology enabling 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, said analysts and attendees at Go Mobile.

In separate keynote addresses, representatives of Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility underscored the trend. They noted that their companies 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 envision 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 via wireless networks.

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, for example, when a compressor on a refrigerator is failing. If news about a compressor's bad health were transmitted wirelessly to a warranty company, a repair technician could be dispatched to fix the refrigerator before it fails.

The concerns over privacy are mostly abstract so far. During a panel discussion at the conference, Redelfs mentioned a San Francisco-based company called Streetline Inc., which provides a wireless sensor that can be placed in a parking spot to determine whether a car is parked there.

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

Redelfs said the sensors could be linked to systems used by the police, who could dispatch an officer to issue a ticket shortly after a parked car exceeded the time limit. But Gerry Purdy, an analyst at Frost & Sullivan, said it might be better if the wireless message was sent to the cell phone of the car's owner, so he could move the vehicle right away.

Purdy's comment drew laughter from the gathered audience, but Redelfs and another venture capital 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, a general partner at Onset Ventures.

Redelfs said a company he backs, Dust Networks, provides the wireless networking technology behind Streetline's sensors. Even so, he said his firm does take privacy worries into account when deciding whether to fund a new technology.

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

Redelfs said many factors can kill an investment, including the possibility that a particular technology will arouse public concerns about privacy and ethics. Last year, Foundation Capital interviewed makers of 118 technologies who were seeking funding, but it chose to invest in only two of them, 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.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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