GPS Tracking Devices: Issues in Privacy vs Safety

14 May 2008

Devices that make our everyday life a bit easier to navigate are priceless to most of us.  The advances in GPS technology, for instance, have made trips much less stressful for the business and recreational traveler.  An excursion to a new city or even through your home state is a lot more enjoyable with a GPS system there to navigate, through detours and side trips. 

Most of us are familiar with the handheld or removable GPS devices used in cars.  But did you know cell phones are equipped with GPS tracking devices as well.  As part of a Federal mandate, wireless carriers are required equip cell phones with GPS tracking capabilities. Known as the E911 mandate, this was enacted to aid in locating and identifying individuals who dialed 911 for emergency assistance.  Before this, 911 calls made from cell phones left responders with the difficult task of reaching victims based on little or no accurate location descriptions.  Think about it, if you were in a car accident in the middle of the night along an unfamiliar road, what details would you be able to provide as to your whereabouts? 

The safety benefits here are unquestionable.  Response times are reduced thanks to accurate location information provided by cell phone GPS tracking data.  However, as marketing seems to be extending the use and benefits of this feature beyond the realm of safety, the distinction between safety and invasion of privacy is becoming less clear. 

GPS tracking devices now in phones may also be used for directions/acquisition of maps for driving, walking, and hiking, for an additional fee.  Companies are also marketing the phones, and other small GPS devices, as a means of monitoring children and teens, employees, vehicles and even spouses. 

Providing a monitoring service to parents who want to keep track of their kids is big business for the leader in children’s entertainment.  The Disney Mobile network allows parents to track their children’s movements from the convenience of their home computer.  Is this a product based on need or paranoia?   Will viewing your child’s whereabouts remain a private luxury or will others be watching your children as well?  Scary thought, but one we need to think about when we start monitoring our loved ones, in global proportions.

How about employers who want to keep tabs on their employees?  For legitimate reasons, an employer may wish to know where a driver is to better direct service calls or delivery schedules.  He may do so by cell phone GPS or by placing a GPS tracker within the vehicle.  How about an employer who uses employees’ tracked movements to judge productivity or job performance?  Can how long an employee stays at one sales call or even the duration a lunch break be used to justly increase or decrease job ratings? 

As more and more individuals have access to GPS technology, the chances for anyone of us to be monitored increases.  Who views this information?  Is it voluntary? For how long and where the information is stored are just a few of the questions being raised. Are we heading into a “Surveillance Society”?   As a society we are responsible for determining how much “watching” is too much. 

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