Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tracking Technology and Privacy

There are many tracking devices imbedded in a vast array of products that we consume nowadays of which everyone may not be aware of. Such products can range from cars to cell phones and even children’s toys and food. Most of those items carry tracking applications for different purposes such as to provide statistical data, manage inventory and to monitor geographical positioning among others.

While many of those applications are used for legitimate reasons, they can potentially be instrumental for abusive uses and act against public interest. It is undeniable that many such technologies offer, to some extent, a certain commodity to consumers and to organizations alike; however, there is a great danger that they may eventually be used by unscrupulous organizations or individuals to invade people’s privacy and even commit criminal acts. The question is to what extent those technologies will be beneficial or detrimental to the general public.

According to an article on howstuffworks, “Some of the current technologies being used to create location-tracking and location-based systems include: a) Geographical Information Systems (GIS), used for large scale location-tracking systems integrates hardware, software, and data for capturing, managing, analyzing, and displaying all forms of geographically referenced information. GIS is most often associated with a map [1]; b) Global Positioning Systems (GPS), facilitated by a constellation of 24 to 32 orbiting satellites are used to send microwave signals to GPS receivers on earth’s surface. An individual receiver picks up to those sources with a considerably small margin of error. c) Radio Frequency Identification (RFID). Those are thin battery-less microchip which can be attached to just about any surface such as, vehicles, cattle, consumer goods, and literally any moving object with the purpose of tracking its geographic location as it moves around; d) Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) are devices which use frequency such as 802.11b”.

Most commonly, one or more technologies are converged to create one product. An
example of that is a system called OnStar developed by GM which utilizes GPS and mobile telephone systems. A new feature of the product permits the safe recovery of a vehicle by authorities in case it is stolen. A law enforcement agent will be able to send a signal and cut the engine power off and the vehicle will slow down until it comes to a complete stop. That ensures a safe recovery and prevents dangerous chases according to Onstar Developers.

“Some inconveniences about tracking technologies is that when chips being embedded in your ID cards, your clothes, your possessions, you are effectively broadcasting who you are to anyone within range, the level of surveillance possible, not only by the government but by corporations and criminals as well, will be unprecedented. There simply will be no place to hide”, says Bruce Schneier, a security expert at Counterpane Internet security, Inc.

There are many ways in which abusive use of tracking technology can take place. Wiretapping may be a classical way to follow a person’s footsteps. But the internet has become very popular to that end as well. The use of spiderware and adware which are cookies obscurely deployed to gain access to one’s computer and relay information about the user’s routine to a third party, are examples of that. The cell phone combined with GPS can potentially be used with the malicious purpose to tracking someone’s whereabouts without the person’s knowledge.

A behavior which may be viewed as abusive consists of implementing RFID to monitor the performance and conduct of employees in the workplace. What follows is a quote from an article published at by William A.Herbert, Deputy Chair and Council for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board, in which he expresses his concern about such measures:

“Various federal and state laws have been proposed and enacted to place restrictions on both governmental and private use of human tracking technology. Increasingly, public and private employers are utilizing human tracking devices to monitor employee movement and conduct. Due to the propensity of American labor law to give greater weight to employer property interests over most employee privacy expectations, there are few current limitations on the use of human tracking in employment”

Even though new technologies continuously open up a large array of possibilities for consumers, it is inevitable that it will also bring new ethnical and safety concerns for society. Tracking technology is not different and despite the fact that it has proven to be useful and may be used for justifiable reasons, it also poses a threat to individual privacy and integrity as some applications may be used for dubious purposes. As these applications get more sophisticated, we as a society may have to revisit and redefine the meaning of privacy as we could more often become an element of interest in illegimate data plots.

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