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!

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