GPS and privacy
Date: Sunday, January 28 2007
GPS and privacy
Privacy and civil liberty concerns lurk behind location-based surveillance
January 22, 2007
By Treena Hein, CBC News
Cheap and accessible GPS-based technology is offering individuals and businesses a range of new capabilities that would have been the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago, but its increasing use for surveillance-related activity is also sending chills down the spines of privacy advocates.
"No one ever argued that there weren't good uses for much of the technology which has privacy concerns," said Richard Rosenberg, a professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia and president of BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association. "The problem is, it's sold on the basis of what might be a good use."
Commercially available remote GPS receivers that cost less than $350 and offer battery life of about a month are now smaller than a cellphone.
GPS receivers the size of a $1 coin and designed to plug into a laptop computer sell for as little as $50.
Trackers small enough to be hidden on bicycles are being used to catch bike thieves.
GPS, short for global positioning system, is based on a series of satellites that ring the globe, sending out signals indicating their position. GPS receivers, now small enough to build into cellphones and other tiny gadgets, compare the signals from several of these satellites to triangulate their position. If the receiver is moving, it can also calculate its heading and speed.
Whether you are a parent who wants to track your teenager when they're out for the night in the family car, a person calling for an ambulance on a GPS-equipped cellphone, or a business seeking more operational efficiency, it is easy to see how knowing a person's precise location provides many advantages.
For example, knowing the location of your teenaged daughter is a good thing in case she has car trouble or is involved in an accident.
But consider the other side of the coin: Are the details about her movements secure? In other words, is there any guarantee that someone within the GPS service company won't use that information for evil or illegal purposes, or that a hacker can't access the system?
And no one can argue that being easily located when you call 911 from a GPS-equipped cellphone is of great benefit. But how long does the GPS provider keep the log of those movements, and what's the data being used for the rest of the time?
There are many questions that arise when people start leaving GPS trails behind wherever they go. Can the information be used to investigate your daily routines, or by others who want to track your movements without your direct permission? Is a marketing company able to purchase the data to try and discern your buying habits so they can fine-tune their sales pitches?
[Proofreader's note: this article was edited for spelling and typos on January 29, 2007]