For a long time, the uses and applications of the navigational technology, the Global Positioning System, was nearly exclusive province of different nations' military and governments. In fact, one of their favorite GPS applications was in weapons and spy technology, helping suspicious governments track the whereabouts of their perceived enemies.
Now GPS is on the verge of exploding into the civilian population. Soon, GPS will be embedded in cell phones, PDA's and all kinds of wireless devices. And some consumers are complaining that their movements are being tracked as insidiously as one superpower might track another.
At least that was how one man in New Haven, Connecticut, USA felt last fall.
James Turner was a regular renter of minivans at Acme Rent-A-Car. His business as a box office manager for a performing arts center took him out of town a lot, checking on shows. The small rental car agency seemed perfect for his needs, as it was conveniently located close to his home.
But after one trip out of town last fall, Turner returned home and discovered that his bank account had been mysteriously debited for $450 US dollars. When he investigated, he was told that the he had been fined that amount for driving in excess of the posted speed limit, according to Acme. It turns out that Acme's cars are equipped with GPS systems, systems that also register how fast the rental car is going at all times. The warning in the contract, which Turner did not, reads "Vehicles in excess of posted speed limit will be charged $150 fee per occurrence. All our vehicles are GPS equipped."
According to Acme, Turner drove over ninety miles an hour on those three occasions. In most states, the legal driving limit is between 55 to 65 miles an hour. But it wasn't the cops who caught Turner. It was the AirIQ system that Acme was using - which meant that Turner had no opportunity to challenge the assertion of the violation. So Turner sued Acme.
So far, Connecticut's Department of Consumer Affairs, at least, has ruled that Turner was not properly informed of the full use and application of the technology in his rental car.
Chris Hoofnagle, the Legislative Counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, worries about this application of GPS, but is more concerned with what future applications it suggests.
"If people can know where you are at any given moment, this can very easily become a marketing tool for anybody - companies can have electronic billboards that are tuned in to your location, that know where to place ads and when to place them," he says.
Hoofnagle says that that in itself is not a problem, as long as the companies who gather and track your data aren't selling this information to marketers without your permission.
"At EPIC, we are encouraging industries to give their customers an 'opt-in option," says Hoofnagle. "Happily, the wireless industry seems inclined to comply with that idea."
As for AirIQ, the Toronto, Canada-based company who developed the tracking system that Acme Rent-A-Car employs, they claim they have no intention for their system to be used in any way that might violate a consumers rights or privacy.
"We simply want our customers to be able to help protect their investment," says AirIQ spokesman Jerry Boxer. "And of course, we will respect any legal ruling or restrictions that emerge on the use and applications of our technology."
Privacy issues are regional
Interestingly, while EPIC and other electronic privacy watchdog groups have been getting a fair number of reports of such GPS abuses in the States, it doesn't seem to be happening as much in Europe.
According to EPIC's Research Director Sarah Andrews, who tracks such matters globally, a lot of that has to do with stringent privacy protections put in place years ago by the European Union.
"In 1995, the EU issued a 'Data Protection Directive' and in 1997, a 'Telecommunications Directive,' both of which provide for strict privacy regulation," says Andrews.
"What also helps is that in Europe, data processors have to register with authorities, which helps stop shady uses of information," she says.
As for other parts of the world, Andrews says some countries are up to speed with the EU, while others are still trailing in this regard.
"Hong Kong has had significant privacy protection since 1995, and there are draft laws in the works in Malaysia and Thailand," says Andrews.
As for South America and Eastern Europe, the general trend is to bring data privacy protection laws to par with the EU laws. This is in order minimize any possible trade restrictions with members of the EU as a result.
But in the United States, privacy laws concerning data are still comparably minimal. Andrews, who happens to be Irish, has a theory about this.
"In the US, there seems to be an historic suspicion of the government. But there seems to be a great deal of naivete about the private sector. Consumers should question the motives of the private sector more," says Andrews.
GPS: It's many positive faces
Of course, many private interests are also putting technologies like GPS to good and beneficial uses as well; most of us are aware that GPS systems can help prevent the average civilian from getting lost, or help them get found - in the case of emergency. But there are many applications in action - some of them very creative.
The 10-year civil war between Nicaragua's Sandinista government and the Contras, left many of the indigenous communities devastated, fractionalized and forced to re-locate.
After the Sandinista government feel in 1990, residents along the country's Caribbean coast sought to re-build their community by taking control of the regions natural resources, including forest and fishery products, minerals and seafood.
But in order for the locals to exploit these resources, there had to evolve a clear means for demarcating land tenureship, based on historic rights, as opposed to private land titles.
To help resolve community border issues peacefully, the World Bank initiated a project in 1996 to use low-cost GPS receivers to help produce these communities' first maps ever. The maps in turn enable communities to resolve complex territorial disputes, and to better protect and profit from their property and resources.
Other emerging uses of the technology are in tourism.
In Scotland, a vast, Victorian-era railway network crisscrosses the land through peaty bogs and craggy highlands. But in spite of the spectacular vistas to behold by railway travel, the use and convenience of cars has cut deeply into railway popularity. Today, ScotRail engineers are hoping that by employing GPS receivers, they can help seduce passengers back to the romance of riding the rails, with up-to-the-minute timetables, weather and other information.
"GPS can really enhance the lives of people in all sorts of wonderful ways," says EPIC's Chris Hoofnagle. "We just want it to be used responsibly."
Heidi Kriz is a San Francisco-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, Red Herring, and PC Computing.