Opinion: The hazards of GPS tracking

When I dropped by to see my friend Abednego the other day, he was up to his pointed elbows building a cell-phone tracking device. His face lit right up when he saw me. “Just the person,” he yelped cheerily. “I needed a guinea p- tester!”

Apparently to qualify as guinea p- tester, all I had to do was haul his phone along as I ran my errands. While I shuttled around the city with Abednego’s GPS-enabled cell phone, software would update my location, identifying me as a blue flashing pinpoint on a Google Maps site.

Why would Abednego want a mobile anything that lets people track him? Apparently there are great reasons.

His family could see when he was five minutes from home, for example. (I wondered how his teenagers had slipped that one in.)

His wife could phone to say she’d love to fix salmon for supper if only someone-who was driving practically right past-could pop into Fresh ‘n’ Finny to drop some fillets in the old market basket. That way dinner-if not his life-would be instantly richer and juicier.

If his friends had similar devices, Abednego could check maps via his own cell phone to see if his buddies were in the neighbourhood. Voila: rendezvous down at the pub.

And, of course, there could be genuine security benefits. Since 2005, phones sold in the United States have been GPS-enabled to accommodate the FCC E911 regulation requiring that cell phone carriers be able to locate specific phones for 911 emergency calls.

But there’s a big issue raising its butt-ugly head. At least in theory, this increased location monitoring means you can be tracked by a lot of folks now, at least according to the Privacy Rights Clearing House. Security protection from stalkers, and nosy neighbours with nothing better to do than watch everybody via electronic maps has to be an issue.

A 7th Circuit Court ruled in March of this year (Gale Document Number: A164160247) that GPS tracking is not a violation of Fourth Amendment privacy guarantees. If the thought of folks following you around gives you the creeps, this is the kind of thing to jump up in your face, shake you by the shoulders and yell, “Boo!”

But in this instance we’re talking friends and family-not the FBI.

Of course you can turn off the tracking; turning off the phone shuts down the GPS signal. But if you’re absent-minded, you might not want to be an early adopter.

No kidding. These new technologies usher in new risks. About a million tech-years ago I worked at a company where the ethics department offered a standard lecture against e-mail abuse. It included the chilling “true” tale of one former employee who, with one wrong click, sent embarrassingly salacious private details of where, when and (blush) how to a whole workgroup rather than to the single individual for whom her note was intended. The two people involved were married, as it happened-just not to each other. We need to learn something from these moral tales.

Not only can the too-much-information syndrome strain relationships, but it also interferes with goofing off, an art form so nearly lost in our culture that this could be the final nail in its floppy disk.

Suppose your last business meeting ends early and you head down to the local bistro. You just want to sit there peacefully by the window, sip your latte, and read Passion and Perfect PC Management, a Sgt. Biff Mikklestone Mystery.

You don’t want a bevy of boisterous friends bouncing in to sit beside you.

You don’t want to go to the fish market.

You don’t want to have your sister call to ask you to bring a double-tall vanilla ristretto because she noticed you’re within 20 yards of an espresso machine.

Some of us won’t be enabling those GPS tracking devices right away because we might just not want to be found-for reasons that aren’t even nefarious.

And one more thing. I went to Bongo’s only to drop off a key with my cousin’s neighbour’s brother-just as a favour. I didn’t even cross the threshold-well not far, anyway-not that Abednego had any right to ask…

If you must, however, watch or be watched, here are a few sites that probably won’t get you in too much trouble:

– A (heh) cell phone tracking simulation to send to friends.

– The GPS Visualizer site with enough GPS links to software-including freeware and shareware-to satisfy enthusiasts.

– Disney Mobile offers GPS tracking of kids by parents (and vice versa, probably).

– Several mobile GPS mapping services are available, like the ones using Google Maps on the Helio Drift and Blackberry 8800. But for those of us who travel coach, some nifty instructions in the archives at Popular Science show how to do it for about a hundred smackers, which is at least a cheap way to let folks track your whereabouts.

Related content:

GPS could spell Big Apple taxi strike

Big Brother on a tiny chip

Privacy group says U.S. laws needed to rein in surveillance

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