Sunday, March 18, 2012

Op-ED: GPS Tracking… How Far is Too Far?


GPS tracking devices, such as the KizON recently released in Korea, are becoming more and more common.

Since it was first available to use for free by the general public, GPS technology has expanded in wonderful ways beyond the obvious mapping uses. With GPS technology, you can play games integrated with real locations, discover new places of interest, map out routes for hikes and cycling, keep track of items you always lose (like your car keys), navigate through the air or water more accurately and even track pets and people.

But with this technology comes a lot of gray areas. We have the ability to track people through their cell phones and other devices, but is it acceptable to do so? How about placing tracking devices on pets or children? What about employers tracking the movements of their employees or their company vehicles? Is it ok for the police to track suspects using GPS?

There are a lot of things in the GPS tracking world to debate, so I thought I’d take a moment and talk about what is and isn’t allowed and maybe ask some questions that ought to be considered.

Police Tracking Suspects

Car trackers, like this commercially available HCT Micro GPS Tracker, can be used by police with a warrant.

Car trackers similar to this commercially available HCT Micro GPS Tracker can be used by police with a warrant.

The Supreme Court has ruled in 2012 that police have to obtain a warrant to track vehicles with GPS, but the issue is a little muddled because while they did state that a warrant is needed “for long term surveillance” it didn’t really specify whether or not it would be okay for police to track vehicles for a short amount of time. And what about innocent passengers who are simply riding in a tracked vehicle? Do they have any privacy rights? And is this kind of GPS tracking really any different than the old-fashioned method of trailing someone and doing a stakeout at their frequent locations?

An Associated Press article explains that while the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that using a GPS device qualified as a search under the Fourth Amendment, the judges stopped short of saying that a warrant is always required for these devices. Several lower courts have ruled that using a GPS device IS acceptable under some circumstances, and yet others have argued that a warrant isn’t necessary—after all, there isn’t really an expectation of privacy driving on public roads.

The courts still seem to be debating the specifics about how it should work and while the Supreme Court decision definitely bolstered the Fourth Amendment right to privacy, it didn’t really give a solid answer. As a result, lower courts and police departments have been left to make their own decisions.

But, contrary to what it may seem like, not all police uses of GPS border on violating someone’s rights. Police departments in Iowa, for example, fitted some of their cars last year with a Bond-inspired GPS cannon (yep, that’s what they call it in the article) mounted behind the front grill (yeah, you read that right) that fires sticky GPS trackers at the back of vehicles during high-speed chases, resulting in fewer dangerous hotrod chases around the city. And that’s just one example.

Ok, so the police can (or can’t?) track you with GPS. But what about other kinds of GPS tracking?

Employee Tracking

It isn’t very uncommon—or even new—for businesses to track company vehicles to ensure that employees aren’t taking joyrides or running personal errands. But recently, slightly more indepth tracking method has taken the interest of the business world—tracking individual employees’ movements via phones or other devices.

Electric Compass Tracker Edited

Fleet trackers, like the Electric Compass Tracker system, are becoming common for employers with a mobile workforce.

This kind of tracking seems logical from a business perspective. It alleviates any worry that dishonest employees are going to take advantage of situations, and some of the apps can even help keep employees safe by monitoring driving habits. But is it a breach of privacy for your employer to literally track your every move? Or is that simply a part of being a good worker? And if you are a good worker, you probably aren’t doing that stuff anyway, why would it matter if they track you? Of course, the ability to track workers’ patterns and locations may simply make for better business and faster response times to customers. It might not really be any different from a business regulating what websites you can and cannot visit while on the clock or what clothes you wear.

I think everyone has had a co worker that, well, wasn’t quite as motivated as everyone else. Solutions like tracking with GPS might help with that, especially in businesses where workers are in the field all day. Personally, I don’t care for the idea of having to submit myself that kind of micromanaging while on the job, but there are definitely some pros to this use of GPS technology.

Tracking Pets and People

If you have a dog, you’ve probably had it run away or escape the yard at least once—it’s part of what makes a dog, a dog. The logical solution is to find an easy way to find your lost cat or dog when (not if) they escape and go exploring. Enter GPS tracking devices that can be placed on your pets collar. Some of these devices require a membership fee or subscription, but not all of them. They are starting to gain popularity and have become quite reasonably priced.

Small cat GPS tracker

This GPS tracker is even small enough for a cat!

I think most people wouldn’t think twice about this sort of tracking. It’s for the pet’s own good, and it helps hundreds—probably more—pets each year get back to their loving homes. That definitely is ok, right? It isn’t like there are going to be too many privacy concerns about tracking your pet away from the house.

But what about tracking people?

Many different developers have begun releasing tracking devices aimed at children and elderly. Wrap a device around your child’s wrist and keep track of where they are at all times. You can even get text alerts when they leave a specified area or route. No wandering, no worry about children getting lost walking home from school, or Jimmy skipping class to go skateboarding—one step past the perimeter and parents or caretakers are immediately informed.

But is that ok? Does that invade children’s privacy rights, having parents able to track their every step and how long it took them to get there?

I have read many articles on the topic, and a lot of people are wondering how that will effect children’s development. If mom and dad are always watching, then kids will never get the chance to make their own decisions, some argue, and they won’t explore the world around them and be curious, as children naturally are. Tracking older children may even foster the idea that parents don’t trust them. I know there are a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done if I knew my parents were watching my every step—but is that a bad thing? I expect kids will be kids regardless of whether or not parents are tracking them.

However, some of these devices aren’t just for kids. Many are marketed towards keeping track of your ambiguous ‘loved ones.’ With these apps, you can make sure your honey doesn’t stop at the bar on his way home, or that your wife really is going to the gym. Of course these are exaggerations, and I am not suggesting that everyone who uses these devices is spying on you—not having to worry about your spouse during a long drive or business trip is never a bad thing—but where is the line? When does it stop becoming protecting your loved ones and losing any sense of independence?

Additional Thoughts

There are a lot of things to consider when looking at GPS tracking technology in everyday life. No matter whether or not you agree with the privacy questions this technology raises, one thing is for sure: it is going to change the way people do things. How can you surprise your wife with roses, if she can track you stopping by the florist on your way home? How many lost children could be found if they had one of these devices? How many crimes could be solved or bad employees fired with the proliferation of this kind of technology?

Personally, I don’t think that the direction this technology is headed is really a bad thing. The trick is going to be moderation and careful consideration instead of just throwing away all privacy and being tracked everywhere you go to counter the fear of a big, scary world.

But that’s just me. What do you think? Is GPS tracking something we should be worried about?


  1. Nice article.

  2. Madhavan says:

    This blog is really a great source of information for me.

  3. Really good information you have shared… Thank you..

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