Human-tracking Goes Mainstream

June 28, 2005

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_Martha Stewart wears an ankle bracelet.Sprint announces a new "Business Mobility Framework" for employers to track employees.School officials in Sutter, California, order students to hang RFID tags around their necks; parents object and the principal backs down.Already, school children in Osaka, Japan, are required to wear similar tags tucked in their belongings.The government of Mexico tracks court officials with radio frequency identification (RFID) tags implanted in their shoulders.Finland changes national laws to allow cell phone tracking of children.A woman in Kenosha, Wisconsin, discovers her estranged husband has hidden a GPS tracker in her car. All are current news items.

Once viewed as a futuristic nightmare, human-tracking is now affordable and available without restriction.For $200 plus a monthly service fee of $20, anyone can purchase an electronic device that puts George Orwell's 1984 surveillance technology to shame.They're marketed as "kid-tracking" devices, though some ads also mention pets and senior citizens.In vivid shades of doublespeak, one company offers service plans named "Liberty, Independence, and Freedom," but surveillance and control are their purpose.

At the very least, human-tracking devices will alter relationships between some parents and children, husbands and wives and employers and employees more dramatically than any other product emerging from the information revolution.Ultimately, they offer a new form of human slavery based on location control.They pose the greatest threat to personal freedom ever faced in human history.

Whatever legitimate uses there may be -- to safeguard a child or incapacitated adult, for example -- abuses will occur.Even full-blown geoslavery is inevitable: the uncertainty is how many people will suffer from it -- hundreds, thousands or millions.

Consumers welcome GPS receivers for personal navigation, especially for travel and outdoor recreation.There's much good and certainly no harm as long as the coordinates go directly to the user and no one else. Current devices display maps produced by GISs containing detailed information about businesses, residences and individuals. Human-tracking devices add radio communication that reports location data to a service center with its own powerful GIS.Subscribers pay for the privilege of peeking in at will to check on the individual being tracked.

After decades of fretting over Orwell's vision, hardly a whimper has been heard since the devices went on sale.Media attention has focused entirely on the advertised case: parents of good intention watching over their own children.Far from critical review, news and talk show coverage amounts to little more than blind acceptance of manufacturers' claims.

Will the practice really protect children? Or will it introduce new risks? How will children react, emotionally and behaviorally, to constant surveillance and control? Will tracking be confined to children and incapacitated adults? Or will it become a ubiquitous tool of control throughout society? Peter F.Fisher, professor of geographic information science, University of Leicester and editor of the International Journal of Geographic Information Science, and I have raised these and other crucial questions in scholarly journals and trade magazines, but questioning of any sort is strangely absent elsewhere.

It's time for an explicit national debate on human-tracking that goes far beyond privacy, per se.Which applications are acceptable and which are not? Which will require informed consent, legal proceedings or medical hearings? Which existing laws must be amended to place electronic means on a par with traditional means of branding, stalking, incarceration and enslavement? Should human-tracking companies be licensed? Should their employees undergo background checks? What other safeguards are needed?

Initially, the front line will be in the workplace.How will union leaders value workers' rights with human-tracking as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations?

None of this debate will happen until citizens become alarmed enough to educate themselves and demand answers, and it's not clear they will resist.At church one recent morning, a fellow member described to me how his friend, the owner of a construction firm, uses GPS-based cell phones to track "his 20 Mexicans." He envied his friend's constant control and hoped to adopt the technology himself though he has only "three Mexicans of his own." That conversation occurred in the oldest church in Kansas, established by abolitionists who came to make Kansas a free state and thereby sparked the Civil War.The irony was overwhelming.

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