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Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Cellphone users graduate to`lies and alibis clubs'

Apart from helping people stay in easy contact, cellphones are starting to take on a different function -- helping users hide their whereabouts, create alibis and generally excuse their bad behavior

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

Harry Kargman, president and chief executive of Kargo, at his Manhattan office last week where numerous test phones sit beside his computer waiting to be programed. Kargman's company plans to begin selling a variety of cellphone sounds next month, that enable the user to select background sounds that will be heard by the caller in order to falsify the user's whereabouts.

PHOTO: NYT PHOTOS

Cellphones are chock-full of new features like built-in cameras, personalized ring tones and text messaging. They also gave a real boost to Kenny Hall's effort to cheat on his girlfriend.

Hall, a 20-year-old college student in Denver, decided in March to spend a weekend in nearby Boulder with another woman. He turned to his cellphone for help, sending out a text message to hundreds of other cellphone users in an "alibi and excuse club," a network of 3,400 strangers who help each other skip work, get out of dates or give a loved one the slip.

Assistance came instantly. One of the club members, on receiving Hall's message, agreed to call the girlfriend. He pretended to be the soccer coach from the University of Colorado at Boulder and said that Hall was needed in town for a tryout.

"It worked out pretty good," said Hall, who signed up for the network on www.sms.ac, a Web site that offers access to hundreds of mobile chat rooms.

Cellphones are usually used to help people keep track of each other and stay in easy contact. But they are also starting to take on quite a different function -- helping users hide their whereabouts, create alibis and generally excuse their bad behavior.

There is nothing new about making excuses or telling fibs. But the lure of alibi networks, their members say, lies partly with the anonymity of the Internet, which lets people find collaborators who disappear as quickly as they appeared. Engaging a freelance deceiver is also less risky than dragging a friend into a ruse. Cellphone-based alibi clubs, which have sprung up in the US, Europe and Asia, allow people to send out mass text messages to thousands of potential collaborators asking for help. When a willing helper responds, the sender and the helper craft a lie, and the helper then calls the victim with the excuse -- not unlike having a friend forge a doctor's note for a teacher in the pre-digital age.

Another new tactic is the use of audio recordings that can be played in the background during a phone conversation to falsify the caller's whereabouts. Phones can be equipped to play, at the press of a button, the sounds of honking horns, ambulance sirens or a dentist's drill. An employee who is actually sitting at the beach might be able to call his boss, play the blaring tones of a traffic jam, and explain why it has been impossible to get to work on time.

"It lets you control your environment," said Harry Kargman, chief executive of Kargo, a New York company that plans to begin selling in July a variety of cellphone sounds for US$2.99, including the rasp of a hacking cough to simulate lung infection. "It's not necessarily malicious or nefarious," Kargman said.

Whatever the moral implications of these functions, they show that the cellphone, with its increasing computing power, is taking on complicated functions once associated with computers. And the advanced technology that makes it possible to keep closer tabs on people, said James Katz, a professor for communications at Rutgers University, also gives them a potent tool for deception.

Katz said there was practically an arms race between the technology used to locate people and track behavior -- global positioning systems, for instance, and caller ID on phones -- and technologies designed to deflect surveillance, like audio for fake background noises. At the same time, constant surveillance may have increased the desire to get off the radar, even if that means using underhanded tricks.

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