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GPS Technology, Privacy, and Police States: Where Do We Draw the Line?

Since entering the mainstream in the 1990s, GPS technology has arguably changed modern life for the better. After all, GPS can help us to receive real-time updates of adverse weather conditions, track down lost pets, and drive cross-country without asking for directions. We can even organize protests and meet-ups, such as teacher strikes, with ease thanks to modern tracking tech.


However, there's also a dark side to GPS technology, one that jeopardizes the privacy rights of virtually everyone on the planet. And it's an issue that activists saw coming: As early as 2010, GPS devices were likened to the surveillance state of Oceania in George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984.

That year, lawyers argued that the Drug Enforcement Administration's use of a GPS tracking device to potentially obtain information on Juan Pineda-Moreno violated the defendant's Fourth Amendment rights. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and the DEA's actions were deemed constitutional. But that the decision was essentially overturned two years later by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v. Jones, in which all seven Justices agreed that GPS tracking by law enforcement constitutes a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.

Even with United States v. Jones in place, GPS tracking technology is inherently dangerous. In many cases, law enforcement walk a thin line of unreasonable search, especially when it comes to house arrest and probation. So how can we utilize GPS technology while also holding police and law enforcement accountable when they overstep their bounds?

GPS Tracking Technology Across History

Interestingly, we have the space program to thank for the foundations of GPS tech. Scientists observing the Russian satellite Sputnik in 1957 first noted the Doppler Effect, a phenomenon that served as the conceptual framework for GPS. By 1993, all 24 Navigation System with Timing and Ranging (NAVSTAR) satellites were in place and operational, and GPS became available to the public at no charge.

Today, the so-called Global Positioning System (GPS) is owned by the U.S. government and operated by the Air Force. That fact in itself is problematic, as GPS tracking effectively serves the interests of the U.S. government and underlying law enforcement agencies. Yet we are made to believe that GPS technology helps keep our families safer, as indeed it can.

For instance, parents across the world are harnessing GPS technology to track the whereabouts of their children. These parents can achieve peace of mind that their children are safe and where they're supposed to be simply by turning on geolocation services on mobile devices or vehicles. Parents of teen drivers can further ensure their child's safety by installing a GPS tracker in the car. And it's up to the parent to choose whether or not to tell their teen that he or she is being tracked.

The Dangers of Technology Addiction

Speaking of teens, they're prone to another peril of technology: Addiction. Although humans have used mind-altering substances for thousands of years, the concept of addiction is relatively new. Alcoholism was the first recognized disease of addiction, and treatment of the condition was first proposed by American physician and Founding Father Benjamin Rush in 1784. It took several decades for addiction treatment to enter the mainstream, however.

Today, we fortunately have a deeper understanding of the nuances of addiction. For instance, it's widely accepted that addiction doesn't always involve mind-altering substances. Humans can be addicted to virtually anything that's used as an unhealthy coping mechanism, from food and shopping to video games and other forms of technology.

Case in point: according to Bradley University, smartphone addiction has become a major social problem in recent years. Americans reportedly spend nearly 6 hours on their phone every day on average, which may be negatively impacting mental health on a large scale. The problems associated with technology addiction are further compounded when we consider GPS tracking. For instance, if our smartphones are always in our pocket and contain a wealth of our personal information, how easy is it for a hacker or our own government to access that data? Are anonymity and privacy even possible in the age of smartphones?

Spyware, Surveillance, and the Loss of Anonymity

Privacy concerns inevitably go hand-in-hand with the ubiquity of smartphones and Bluetooth trackers. You may not consider all the ways in which your movements are tracked, and how much of that information ends up on your smartphone.

For example, your online shopping habits are monitored by any number of tracking companies, to better personalize your future experiences. You may even receive money-saving offers thanks to this type of tracking, yet it can also be considered an invasion of privacy. Another form of consumer targeting, called geotracking, is directly linked to GPS. This allows entities to engage in geotargeting, which tailors content to a particular audience based on their known location.

It's important to note that many geotargeting platforms sell personal data to other organizations, including law enforcement. But the good news is that there can be a balance between personalization and surveillance, even in our modern world where locations are constantly tracked. Make sure you don't just blindly share your location with apps and don't hesitate to opt out of a shopping rewards program or similar service if you feel your data may be shared without your consent.

Final Thoughts

Although the underlying tech itself is the brainchild of the U.S. government, the ubiquitous nature of GPS tracking technology can be attributed to capitalism. Before your next purchase of a smartphone, smartwatch, Bluetooth device, or similar product, consider its implications. Will your personal privacy be compromised when using the device or service? GPS tracking is widely considered a slippery slope, and it's up to global citizens to stand up against unlawful tracking and surveillance before we end up in a worldwide police state.

Posted by jhamilton at December 4, 2019 7:19 PM
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