Tech’s knack to track: useful or unethical?
Most of us carry a powerful GPS unit in our pocket every day. A modern mobile phone uses AGPS (Assisted GPS) which delivers even faster results for location tracking. There are a multitude of apps available for your smartphone that will allow other users – with permission – to track your whereabouts.
I am a bit worried about my elderly Mum. She told me she was going to Mass but I happened to drive past and I couldn’t see her car there. My kids like going for a walk with the dog along the Tracker-riley cycleway. How do I know that they haven’t met with foul play? I am riding my bike early in the morning through our kangaroo infested mountain bike trails and I am late home. My wife would like to know if I am just slow today or if a kangaroo might have taken me out.
If only there was a way to keep track of the location of my family and loved ones to know where there are at all times. It will come as no surprise to you to know that there is a technology solution – with possibly some ethical questions. But more of that later. First – the technology.
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is the first step in finding the location of a device. The first GPS satellite was launched in 1978 by the US Military with the intention for it to be for military use only but in 1983, then President Ronald Reagan, announced that GPS would be made available for civilian use on the back of a commercial airliner being shot down after navigational errors caused it to stray into Soviet prohibited airspace. It took until 1993 for a full constellation of 24 satellites to be fully operational and providing services to the world. With various policy changes to allow increased accuracy for civilian use and additional launches and upgraded systems, we now have the current 31 satellites in orbit at 20,180km above the earth serving our GPS needs.
The creativity and ingenuity of humans will never cease to amaze me – and it wasn’t long after GPS was available that the first companies starting selling GPS fleet tracking devices. Companies quickly started selling large and expensive devices – with horrendous monthly fees – that allows fleet managers to retrospectively look at vehicle movements. They were typically employed in heavy vehicle fleets that were used for long-haul transportation. Data was downloaded weekly or monthly for driving efficiency to be analysed by the fleet manager and possibly to ensure the driver maintained good driving habits.
As the technology advanced and systems became cheaper and smaller, fleet managers who were buoyed by the success on their heavy vehicles started to fit devices to their light vehicle fleets. Again, a retrospective view could be used to compare time sheets and log books with the actual location of a vehicle. The sales rep might now need to justify why his vehicle was parked for only ten minutes outside the store he was visiting but seemed to be outside the pub for most of the afternoon.
The next step forward is where we really want to focus. Looking back at a log a week or month after the event is one thing but with the increased coverage afforded by the mobile phone networks around the world and the reduction in price of data services, realtime vehicle tracking was added as an additional service.
Now a manager could see exactly where a vehicle was at a given point in time. In the US the first employee GPS monitoring case came before the courts in 2013. His employer suspected that the employee was submitting false time reports and returning home from extended business trips earlier than his timesheets showed. The employer’s action was to secretly attach a GPS unit to his vehicle. Their suspicions were confirmed and the tracking information showed that he was spending considerable work time at the house of his secretary – and she wasn’t taking any filing work home with her! He was dismissed and the court of appeal said that using a GPS tracking device to confirm suspicions was reasonable.
Fast forward to today and the technology we have available to track people and things is quite incredible.
GPS units in vehicles are still available but they are now cheaper and smaller. They can be used for real-time or retrospective tracking. Going a step further though most of us carry a powerful GPS unit in our pocket every day. A modern mobile phone uses AGPS (Assisted GPS) which delivers even faster results for location tracking. There are a multitude of apps available for your smartphone that will allow other users – with permission – to track your whereabouts. It was way back in September 2011 that Tahira Donohoe made the national news when her phone was stolen at school and Tahira and her Dad then used ‘Find my iphone’ to track the bus that the thief was on. They eventually brought the Police into the chase and they recovered the phone.
Going a step further, there are devices that are not much larger than two coins joined together that allow tracking and recording of the device’s location. Tile and Trackr are two such low-cost devices that use Bluetooth connections to nearby phones to allow a device to be tracked and located. My youngest daughter has a Tile in her favourite teddy bear so she can always find it.
There is no doubt that the technology is available to track cars; people and things and the accuracy – even inside buildings – is surprisingly good. That brings me back to one of my first points. The ethics. There are certain laws in place in relation to tracking in terms of employees but I am not sure of the legality of tracking family members. Ethics and the law are not always aligned but the answer to me seems fairly simple. Inform. If you want to track employees or family members or teddy bears, make it known that tracking is in place and the reasons why and, once agreement is reached, who could complain? I just hope the teddy bear union doesn’t find out about my daughter’s situation!