06 February 2014

My Kingdom for a Phone

Ever been creeped out by technology? We hear the government can track our whereabouts and listen in on our phone calls, read our emails, and find out what we buy most of at the grocery store. Actually, I never heard they can or want to know about grocery habits, but I have a feeling they do know. After all, the long receipt with the items and prices on it [that I put in my pocket and lose] triggers coupons when I am checking out. I don't really care if they know how many times I buy olives, cheese, and wine, do I? What I do care about is being the trackEE and not the trackER.

We have a family wireless account to save money on service for three cell phones. One of those phones went missing over the weekend.  When we checked the usage online, we saw that they'd made several calls, including two to Mexico. We tried calling the local numbers they had called. Left messages. And then we suspended service to the phone.

Our carrier has an add-on feature to track the phones on the account--free for 30 days. The "How To" gives examples of parents tracking the phones to find out whether the child has arrived at the agreed upon destination. We signed up for the free 30 days feature, unsuspended the phone, and clicked on "Locate device." Bingo. A little red dot inside a blue-lit circle on the map indicated the phone's current whereabouts. Less than a mile from where it was last seen.

Well, not exactly. It describes the location as being "within 70 yards" of a specific address. Twenty minutes later, the estimated location is withing 253 yards of a different address around the corner. If you are familiar with iPhone's Find My Phone, this feature works the same way. The satellite's position, I think, determines the location generated and sent back to you.

Staring at the computer screen waiting for blue circle and red dot started to creep me out pretty quickly. I switched to Google-Earth for a view of the buildings on the street indicated by the red dot. Somewhere on that block, maybe in that very building the phone we were looking for sent us a message, "I'm here. Help me!" I felt like Sherlock Holmes; not the Conan Doyle original, but the Benedict Cumberbatch's contemporary version.

Flyers were immediately posted in that neighorhood and handed out door to door announcing a reward for the return of the phone. It's a basic phone. No big deal. Unless you try to get another basic phone to replace it. ALL phones these days with two-year contracts have to have data plans, because the only ones they sell with contracts are smart-phones. We lost a dumb-phone. Darwin's principle of evolution or Murphy's law apply. Also, economic theories tell the wireless provider that they can get more money by requiring all smart-phones to have a data plan, and only offer smart-phones to customers. All we want is a basic phone. Sorry.

The service provider rep I chatted with online [that goes by three simple letters of the alphabet, two of which are the same] told me we could get a pay by use phone and substitute it for the one we lost on our family package ($9.99 for second and third and fourth lines). We'll just pay the same additional line fee, plus $.10 every time we use it. Huh? Then, I went to a land store and asked. The service provider rep at the store said just what I said, "Huh? What? That's crazy." They will take a regular SIM card, drop it into a pay by use phone and all's well, just like having a basic phone for $9.99 a month. I won't know who's right until we try it and see the bill.

By this time, we'd already ordered a new SIM card for a basic phone, and after it arrived we dropped it into the previous phone that had been replaced by the stolen one. This recycled phone is falling apart, and we hope to find a new old phone to substitute soon. But it worked immediately.

The technology to locate phones and the people with them in less than a minute, across state lines if need be, exists and works well. It's a little creepy. Whether or not we use smart-phones or basic phones, we can't hide as long as we choose to use the phone. The satellites track our every move.

While we are being stalked by those on our family plan, we're being skinned for extra charges on our family package because they require everyone to have a smart-phone. Like they don't have the technology any longer to permit us to have basic phones on contract that work just as well (if not better) than the high priced smart-phones.

There's no going back. That only happens in Dr. Who or a Stephen King novel. Unless the future resembles the latest craze in teen-fiction (not vampires, but where mass destruction leads the human race back to primitive lifestyles), we will all have smart-phones, Google Glasses, and chips embedded under our skin for all manner of ingenuity. That time may already be here.

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