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Privacy Concerns and the future of GPS

21st October 2002

 Article by Dave Burrows


I must admit, like many others I've always been a gadget kind of person, I've always been interested in the latest gadgets that hit the market, and I've always liked the look of GPS, but I somehow never really found a use, or a good one at that for just seeing the co-ordinates longitude and latitude that are displayed on some of the earlier handheld GPS units.  It's not to say they weren't useful, as they were for many, but I never personally found a use for them.


I think GPS has evolved at an alarming rate since the inception of the Pocket PC with companies like Navman and TomTom excelling with hardware and software products that really do bring good uses to the standard day to day tasks we do, like driving to the office, driving home, flying a light air craft etc.  I think what really got me interested in GPS was after watching Enemy Of The State, and seeing the satellites tracking a person or fugitive, and thought yeah that would be cool, and most of what was in EOTS was fiction, like in most movies, however there were quite a lot of facts that came out of the movie.


Privacy is a big concern I and many others have.  If you jump 10 years into the future, 2012, I can easily see that Pocket PC's will probably be small enough to include them into a larger sized watch, the GPS satellites would have probably been updated to punch out more power or better and quicker signal fixes would be achieved by ground sites, watches would not have a problem receiving GPS based signals, but privacy will be a big issue.


Mobile phone companies can and do track where you are, they can triangulate your position between cells, track which cell you're entering from the cell you left and position you in most cases within a 3-5 mile radius.  Pocket PC's are getting smarter and better, look at the XDA and other Pocket PC's with integrated GPRS phones for instance.  Roll on 3G and within a few years we are going to have a very fast internet connection enabled Pocket PC with GPS connectivity.  Call costs may even be free or very cheap, although GPS receivers cannot send data back to a central location, a mobile phone can.


Take for instance the Personal Video Recorders (PVR's) and Satellite TV decoder boxes with on-screen programming.  Most of these dial home to the network provider on a free phone call to download relevant information on things like which Pay Per View movie you rented, and when, or even like TiVo to download demographics from your box to their call centre and to use this in their demographics internally.  This is all being done now, so why in 5-10 years time, or even sooner couldn't a GPS device like an integrated GPS, Pocket PC, Mobile Phone be used to track your where abouts from law enforcement agencies without you knowing about it ?  After all, the FBI are already doing this with emails flying around the internet with Carnivore!

Nokia 6650 and O2 XDA


Navman GPS 3420 and TomTom Navigator

GPS is a great system to use, especially with the event of GPS receivers becoming smaller and smaller (see the Inside Pretec article) and better GPS software coming out to enable you to drive from location A to location B. 


To try and aid in stopping serial killers, or children going missing there are new technologies coming out where you can track your child using a GPS enabled badge or belt, and for them to send a signal back to you by pressing a button to say they're in danger. 


The technology really is here already, and although as with most things, the technology can be used for the good of saving lifes, it can also be used to snoop, and monitor individuals without their knowing.


Should you be able to track your childs whereabouts without them potentially knowing ?  If it could potentially save their life, then what's the problem ? 


The child is below legal age, so technically the child does not have any rights in society to say I do not want my privacy interrupted.  In many cases, I think a child would like to have the comfort knowledge to know if they could call on someone in an emergency.


However, would you want to be tracked without your knowledge by a government agency, debt collector, or even a friend or loved one checking up on you ?  We might not have much of a choice in years to come, apart from leaving all technology devices behind.  There has also been talk in the UK of electronically tagging children with a microchip under the skin that will allow them to be tracked, but where do we draw the line ?  This might sound like something out of a sci-fi film, but fiction is very much becoming a reality in the world we live in, so we really do need to stop and take a moment to think, what would the world be like in the years to come, and how will it affect us ?


If I want to get away and have a quiet 5 minutes to myself, I have to now turn off my pager and mobile phone to stop any interference to my quality time, sure I could leave these at home, but why would I ?  What happens if I wanted to receive a call later, or even make an emergency call ?  So I take them with me.  Same goes for my Pocket PC, GPS receiver and my watch, they all go wherever I go!


It will be interesting to see how GPS, Pocket PC and Mobile Phone technology evolves over the next 2-10 years, but we do need to be vigilant, and with the purchasing of more newer hi-tech gadgets, are we losing our privacy and is someone potentially tracking everything we do ?  Are we all apart of a Big Brother reality show ?


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