Invasive or Indispensable: The Case of Permanent GPS

This isn’t a real post about social media strategy, but it’s an important issue that follows from our social media behavior online. I’m sharing this because I think that despite the controversial nature, it is a significant discussion, especially since I suspect that many of you might have thought differently about this topic 5 years ago.

A friend of mine from high school disappeared two months ago. He left behind a wife and two young children. He eventually resurfaced and was said to be in good physical health. I personally do not know the details, but those periods in the interim were really stressful for all parties involved.

A member of my religious community disappeared. He was an older man, a father and grandfather, perhaps a brother too. He had a large family who cared deeply about him. I started writing this shortly after he was reported missing but before his whereabouts were discovered. Eleven days later, he was found dead in his car.

Over 700,000 individuals in the United States alone are reported missing each year. More than 2,300 people a reported missing each day.

These terrifying statistics make me wonder if it’s time to change given that our privacy is starting to diminish. Perhaps we should broadcast our whereabouts everywhere we go.

After having read the immensely resourceful book, The Facebook Effect, I’m starting to understand how our world is changing thanks to social networks. Facebook, originally intended to be a closed social network for college students to only connect with students in their schools, has changed and made us live our lives in the complete wide open. Sure, for every change there’s some backlash, but let’s consider the chronology:

  • Facebook launches in 2004 to a very select number of schools, and due to demand, increases its presence on other college campuses. You couldn’t join Facebook unless you had a college email address on a particular school’s domain, much to their prospective advertisers’ chagrin. (They couldn’t get their own personal accounts to check out what the appeal was.) This gave the social network a true exclusive feel and made people long for access.
  • In September 2006, after Facebook had nearly 10 million members, the News Feed was announced, which the team had been working on for almost a year. Nearly 10% of Facebook’s membership protested by joining other groups demanding that Facebook shut down the News Feed. Facebook responded by apologizing and giving its users more privacy controls to manage the concerns of students who thought this approach was too invasive.
  • Three weeks later, Facebook opened its doors to everyone, knocking down its exclusivity, broadening its reach, and letting outsiders get access to information that was only available to students. For most, it was a welcome change and new friendships and connections were made.
  • Facebook revisited its policies in 2009 and set its privacy controls to “everyone.” People threatened to leave the service, but not many actually did enough to make a significant dent in the membership numbers on the site. Facebook, for most, was a permanent fixture in the lives of its users.

It was a slow evolution, but social networks have made more people willing to expose themselves to the world wide open. In fact, despite Facebook’s own privacy violations, it still was ranked in 2009 by consumers as one of the most trusted brands of all time. Today, primarily thanks to Facebook and other online community services, we live a more public lifestyle, marrying our personal and professional selves (whether or not we want to) in our online presences.

Is it only a matter of time until we do something ridiculously life saving but also incredibly invasive — like implant GPS tracking devices — so that we can never truly disappear? With this slow social shift into the public realm, which to a very small fraction of us (right now) is now normal, it won’t take very long for the entire world to adjust to the new digital openness.

We now check in voluntarily to places like Foursquare and Gowalla, where we broadcast what we’re doing and where we’re eating. Ironically, this is something that takes a bit of effort on our part, yet nearly 4 million of us share our whereabouts across location-based social networks. There are social media sites like Blippy that broadcast what we’ve bought and which establishments we patronized with our credit and debit cards.

Five years ago, I probably would think that this discussion in its entirety was ludicrous. Who in their right mind would want a permanent tracking device implanted where law enforcement or the government could know where we are at all times? Now, I think that this is one of the most important things in the world. After watching not one but two people I am somewhat associated with (either in the first or second degree) disappear and wondering about the pain their families were suffering while they waited for good (or bad) news, I suspect that families of the missing would want more than ever to have someone find them and bring them back before it’s too late. I’m a mother now as well, and I fear for my loved ones. I’d want to know that they are safe.

But who would own this? Should it be governmental or should it be managed by a private company? How much information is too much? Should implantation be standardized?

Personally, if we ever did such a thing, I might be inclined to volunteer myself under the following conditions:

  • This system should be managed by a government entity or private company in association with law enforcement. That way, when a missing persons report comes in, law enforcement can check against a database and only access information with certain identifying parameters, such as a first name/last name and social security number (which is required for identification and access purposes).
  • This system should not cache all of a user’s whereabouts, but only the last 24-48 hours. Those wanting to maintain high standards of privacy would be relieved to know that only the last 24-48 hours of the host’s movements and locations would be saved and everything else would be wiped without further question. Naturally, I’m sure everyone in his/her lifetime has likely been to places they didn’t want to be caught at, so this should definitely alleviate any major concerns. This data can never be subpoenaed or accessed for a court case; it can only be accessed in the case of dire emergency such as a missing persons report.
  • Sensitive information requires high level clearance. Given the obvious information you can gather off of such a system, only people with extremely high levels of security clearance should be able to access this information. It should be logged and red flagged to prevent abuse, and each incident should be tied into a missing persons report. Without any matching report, any employee accessing this data should be terminated.
  • Implantation should be random and the device should not be trackable. If someone I know with this implanted transponder were to be kidnapped and the kidnappers were aware that the device was on her person, they’d probably spend their first few moments cutting out the device and making sure she was not findable. (Ever watch CTU? It’s not far-fetched.) Instead, these should be high tech devices that are not trackable and they can be implanted just about anywhere, be it in his toe or behind her ear. They should be small and impossible to detect.
  • Access should only be revealed to law enforcement. If Jeannie thought that her husband Arnold was cheating on her, she might abuse this kind of access, get a location on Arnold, and blow his mistress’s brains out. This is serious access and serious business. If a call is made, law enforcement will follow up on the call and not reveal the whereabouts of the sought-after individual to any party until someone actually follows up. Repeat attempts to report false missing persons reports will result in possible arrest for filing a false report.

In extreme circumstances, the bottom line is that this privacy invasive RFID/GPS device can save your life. Perhaps you might worry for your own personal space now, but what would you say if you were stranded on a ski trail in extreme weather where no one could find you? What would you say if you were a parent and you feared that your child may have run away? What would you say if you were in a near-death situation where you only wished someone you knew would want to come and find you? (If you’re not ready now, reread this post in 5 years.)

Based on what has recently happened to people who are close to me, I would never want to go through something like that and put my family or friends through the hardship. I might not have agreed to this just a few years ago, but today, thanks to the social media evolution we’ve seen in the past few years, I live in the world wide open, and so do many of you. What would you do? What terms would you agree to if you wanted to let your loved ones know that you’re accessible and hopefully safe? The comments are yours.

Photos by Shutterstock.

53 Comments

  • John Soares says:

    Tamar, you’ve thoroughly explored both sides of this issue. I think it would be very difficult to implement this without frequently violating people’s privacy and safety. There are too many judgment calls to make when deciding to locate someone with an implanted GPS device.

    There are also legal/constitutional issues: the previously mentioned right to privacy, for starters. Can parents force their kids to get the chip?

    I certainly understand the benefits, and why this could be useful, but I would certainly opt out.

    • I think you’re right. Privacy violations are controversy. Just today, I received a complaint about someone who thought Disqus.com was too much of a privacy violation because Disqus’s Facebook integration apparently “accesses” pictures. (Disqus doesn’t even use them and I think it’s a Facebook default.)

      If a child is under 18, why not? I’d rather know my son is okay than have to worry about him day in and day out. Would you?

      • John Soares says:

        Tamar, I definitely understand you want to know where your son is — I think any good mother would.

        From the teenager’s perspective (which I’m multiple decades away from), I bet the average 16-year-old son doesn’t want Mom tracking his every move!

        • I know that, but mom won’t be tracking his every move. This system only makes sense and would be viable in the case of a missing persons report. His mom won’t have access to that information unless something happened.

          Plus, at age 16, it’s not going to be their choice.

          • leah says:

            i am 14, and i would just like to say, we need privacy, think about it, its very expensive and unfair to us

          • Leah – how is it unfair? Let’s assume you wanted to go out to a party. Nobody would need to track you.

            But let’s say you went to a party and you were missing for 4 days afterward. We don’t need to envision what happened – maybe you were kidnapped; maybe the car you were coming home in fell in a ditch; maybe something happened.

            Would you say “oh, it’s unfair to me that I am being tracked” in those dire moments of your life, or would you truly hope someone found you?

            Think of Jaycee Lee Dugard and how desperately she wanted to be found all those years in captivity.

            Do you think that it was unfair that she wasn’t found? I do.

            I get that you want freedom. I’m not suggesting you aren’t going to have any. I’m suggesting here that in EXTREME situations, you’d want to be found. We all would be.

            I’m totally willing to be tracked at all times if I knew how it could save my life. I’m sure Josh Rubin’s family (and maybe even Josh himself) would have wanted to find him alive.

  • Miguel Lopez says:

    If you check my twitter stream, you’ll see I’m used to press the 4Square checkin button on every stop light :)

    I think we should have the *capability* to do a permanent, easy-to-set-up personal GPS broadcast, and as long as is completely opt-in (in the case of kids / elderly / disabled people, opted by legal guardian) I’m perfectly fine with it.

    I dont think it should be mandatory, just because there is way too many ways it could be abused and very few ways to prevent such abuse.

  • Anna says:

    I agree that it cannot be forced. I also believe it should be via private companies. I am thinking something like “location insurance”. You can set up your phone with a company, and if you are ever reported missing, your family can have the company notify law enforcement of your location. There would be safeguards as you detailed to avoid the stalker girlfriend situation, etc.

    • I agree. I would not want a crazy axe murderer coming to stalk me either.

      • Anna says:

        I am also thinking along the lines of the location insurance, the plan/device/service would come with a panic button. So if you get kidnapped you don’t have to wait until someone realizes you are missing, you can push something/do something on your person that alerts the system that you are in distress and it gives your location. The tech would need to be undetectable.

  • Annabel says:

    As a mother I like the idea of an implantable GPS, but I wonder how it could be made undetectable by kidnappers without it also being undetectable by someone who could have it planted on them against their will–like some kind of nanotechnology that could be slipped into a drink or something? (not that I have any idea if such a thing is possible!)

    Also, I’d want to have immediate access to that info if my son was lost, not have to go through a bunch of red tape to get it. On the other hand, that would also make the system easier to abuse…

    It has such great potential for both good and evil, it’s kind of hard to wrap my mind around it.

    • That’s sort of what I’m hoping SOMEONE can address when they develop the thing. :) I know that if it’s detectable, it would be very dangerous!

      I, too, would want immediate access, but I understand the presence of red tape. At the end of the day, it’s for our own safety. I know I had to compromise on this tidbit for true safety.

      Nothing will be optimal when it comes to something like this, but if it gets us one step closer to finding someone who may be kidnapped, stuck in a ravine, or whatnot, to me, that’s more important than every privacy rule in the book.

  • Heidi Cohen says:

    Tamar-Good thinking on a topic that can be useful for helping older people with Alzheimers and related diseases, tracking sports enthusiasts who take the road less traveled, and small children. While not everyone’s cup of tea, perhaps devices could be used in special circumstances. That said, privacy concerns and the inability to convert all of this tracking data into useful information might be insurmountable. Thank you for sharing. Happy marketing, Heidi Cohen

    • Yeah, the catch is that someone can probably (and will) exploit this. It needs to be maintained by the highest security levels out there, so only the best should work on it.

  • Hasan says:

    Tamar,
    You have mentioned some good points but I would never go for it, neither would I let that tracking device installed into someone who is close to me.
    We are already living in a world where we are being watched and I wouldn’t let that go to a next step. I remember back in the day there were laws where nobody could track you through your credit/debit cards but things have changed and you/me and everyone else can be monitored through that. (They allowed this after the terrorist attacks)

    Another thing that I am concerned about is the Health – We already eat un- natural and un-healthy foods, use a lot of gadgets, avoid every possible natural thing, I wonder how would these devices effect our health? To me, anything that is not natural would always come with side effects and I don’t want that.

    We can avoid this by being careful about what are we sharing online and with whom.

    • Well, the next step is almost the same. :) Maybe it’s a cultural thing, Hasan? Is location-based social networking as popular out there?

      The health side effects make sense. This isn’t something that can be rolled out tomorrow. It needs to be carefully considered and tested.

  • Ariela Ross says:

    Thanks for sharing this valuable post with us all. Being halfway around the world from my immediate family, I check into every place I go and keep Latitude on for one of them at all times just in case, G-d forbid, something should happen. Enabling location tracking on social networks and using those networks specifically intended to share your location provides a sense of security for all parties involved.

    • I agree. As much as I wasn’t too keen on this earlier, I saw the value of it from Twitter a few years ago, and now I tell my husband that if he wants to know where I am, he should just check it out on Foursquare. There are benefits to these behaviors. Now let’s just make it permanent with certain stipulations.

  • Noel Fisher says:

    I think, if it was completely voluntary and could only be accessed by law enforcement, and they did not divulge the location to anyone, that it would be something I might consider.
    My first thought was victims of abuse. It would be terrifying to think your abuser could track you down anywhere you were. But if only the authorities could access your location, then perhaps that wouldn’t be a problem.
    I guess the other question I have is more philisophical: Do we have a right to disappear? Regardless of familial or other responsibilities? Are there not times when each and every one of us might simply not want to be found?

    • Exactly. I’m not about sharing this information with everyone. I’d do that only willingly like I do now.

      The philosophical question is an interesting one. Do we have a right to disappear? By “free will,” the answer might be yes. On the other hand, doesn’t everyone belong to someone else? Interesting thought to ponder, Noel. I appreciate your comment.

  • Ishak Latipi Mastan says:

    Interesting issue, Tamar. For me, it’s a big NO!. I enjoy my digital life very much but I still set aside my “offline” life where the phone is in silent mode and the tablet PC is off. During this time I celebrate my “aloneness” with nature, doing gardening, walking or simply having a great book in my hand & have a cup of hot coffee. My wife or my daughter will not disturb me when I’m in this mode. To me, this is luxury. I still value & treasure my traditional privacy.

    • Ishak, I totally understand and respect that. But what if you were gardening one day, and all of the sudden, someone took you away in his car, you didn’t come home for dinner, and your family was frantic?

      I’m NOT saying at all that you can’t enjoy alone time. At all. I’m saying that if god forbid you disappeared one day, nobody will be able to find you.

      The system and stipulations I wrote about all need to be met before this system can be used. Only 24-48 hours of your last movements can be tracked. Abuse is prohibited.

      This isn’t a device intended to violate personal privacy at all. It’s intended to find you when a dire situation arises and you need people to know you’re unable to help yourself.

  • Ishak Latipi Mastan says:

    Tamar,

    The word Permanent GPS still “scares” me. I don’t mind having a tiny gadget( which enable people to track me in time of emergency) on my body if I go into the forest, climb a mountain or going deep-sea fishing. It’s amazing actually how new things shape our lives. By the way can that GPS track people underground like what has happened in Chile?

    • That’s the hope… it should be able to track you anywhere.

      I understand the fear of a privacy invasion. Don’t get me wrong. I just think we’ll all wish we had it when something happens to us. Maybe this can make people think twice.

  • Tyler Golden says:

    There’s no way any government agency or private corporation should be trusted with this sort of data. The only way I could see it being possible is if it was 1.) Voluntary, and 2.) Only accessible to a few select individuals authorized by the tracked individual. :)

    • Anna says:

      I think a lot of folks are missing the point though – there would be no “tracking”. I think it’s more something that would kick in if there was an official missing persons report or in my comments, I mentioned a panic button for the individual.

      • Yeah, it’s not regular tracking. They HAVE that information but it can ONLY be activated in very rare occasions. For most people, they’ll die and nobody will ever know there whereabouts ever.

        But it’s an insurance/assurance thing. That’s the goal here.

  • Alyssa Engleson says:

    Great article!
    What do you think would be done in the case of witness protection programs? Would the person get a new chip and completely erase their old name/life or do you think law enforcement would want the original name associated with the person?
    In my opinion, the biggest concern would be the possibility of corrupt law officers being able to access these people.

    • Why not just update the data associated with the individual? I’m sure there are other considerations, but that might be an idea.

      I don’t think any system will be absolutely free of corruption, but that’s probably why law officers should not have access to that data. It would likely be best maintained by a private company.

  • Hi Tamar-

    It is scary to know that 700,000 people in the United States are reported missing each year. I absolutely agree with your concern and understand, to a certain extent, the concept of permanent GPS. With the rapid development of new media and technology, it’s probably just a matter of time before this tracking device is implemented.

    For someone who is pretty much a private person, through social networks I find myself sharing more of my personal information than ever before. Your example of Jeannie who may think her husband Arnold is cheating is one reason why I feel that a tracking device such as this one might be used by others for personal gain and manipulative tactics. I’m also not sure how I feel about the government or private entities having access to my daily activities.

    This is a great post, thank you for sharing this important data.

    • Yeah, same here. That’s why I think that if this post was reshared in 5 years’ time, there will be a lot more “me too’s!” than right now. I’m just putting the thought out there for now.

      The abusive nature is the only real concern here. We need real pure people working on a project like this who will never ever abuse or exploit it. Such people exist, and those are the people who should be entrusted to create and monitor the devices.

  • wilson says:

    I don’t know what to think of this. It scares me, but you make an excellent point and it would be very useful. If they could figure out how to make it safe for people I would say go for it. But hopefully there is a better way.

    • Oh yes, it’s very scary. Safety is key.

      Our generation might be fearful of this, but I kind of wonder about the next generation. In 30-40 years, I suspect someone will have made the attempt to do it.

  • Gordon Marcy says:

    Well written. Well-stated position. I’m for the free-market advancement of technology, to accomplish as much good in the world as possible.

    However, I’m not sure that even “optional” permanent GPS is a good idea.

    The life-saving benefits are a strong argument. Your personal examples are a powerful testimony. I remember when one of my daughters, at two years of age, wandered out the door of my apartment and disappeared for what was the longest twenty minutes of my life.

    But, permanent personal tracking technology in the hands, for example, of a repressive totalitarian regime, is a technological genie out of the bottle I just can’t imagine ever getting my support. At least, not voluntarily.

    I vote no on this one Tamar.

    • Good feedback. I do hear you. Personally, I think MANY rules need to be met before I’m ready to say yes, but I can imagine that people won’t be as willing. I do wonder if increased evolutionary openness will cause naysayers to change their minds in time.

  • Popi Gkikopoulou says:

    Dear Tamar,

    There are today GPS devices one can purchase, but are mostly for climbers, fishermen, and others who run riskful activities.

    The idea of having something implanted in my body freaks me out! Of course I share your concern about missing people, however GPS chips are really controversial and don’t believe are the proper way to solve the problem. I am not thinking only of privacy; when talking about chips noone can predict malicious minds. What if a private company includes a control application into the chip? It sounds fictionary but when talking about technology anything is possible.
    A possible solution could be better surveillance systems. We already have them, why not expand them? For sure one will think of it in the future, but let’s hope that someone else will have a better idea…

    • I think the malicious minds issue is a huge one. Can we trust people with this info? I hope so.

      If they have access to the whereabouts of 600,000 people, will they really hone in on ME? Who knows…

      How would surveillance work to find people that just aren’t findable, or worse, don’t want to be found?

  • Ilana says:

    Hey Tamar…don’t stop at whereabouts. I want to know T’s vital signs! (yes, i worry entirely too much)

  • kyle lacy says:

    I think it would be going a tad far to implant something into your body to ensure that people can find you. Seems invasive.

  • Justin Sturges says:

    These types of issues will be central as we move into the future. How do we balance privacy and personal sovereignty with the capabilities of technology to do good and also possibly cause harm and lost freedom? Our right to bear arms is in place to insure that the government has a critical check from its constituents. “Don’t push us around or we’ll pop a cap in you” is at the end of the day a constitutionally granted right we all have in order to insure the health of our society. In a sense everyone having a tag trackable by the government would be like losing the right to bear arms. We could lose a key freedom in doing so.

    In the case of something like this GPS situation, how would we ever be assured that our government left unchecked wouldn’t use this GPS data to track and squash heretics and instigators? To go far beyond anything we ever intended in “insuring” our safety! Would you trust someone who works at the DMV, the IRS, your local government, or even the FBI with this power? HELL NO is my answer. But, would I want SOMEONE to have access if I was ever in deep doodoo and needed HELP! Well yes, and actually I have wanted OnStar in my car for some time. I would be comforted in the fact that they can tell if I was in a wreck and would call the EMS if I were ever in need. Hmmm…

    But, if “bad guys” had them and the “good guys” could monitor it, then it would be immediately apparent who robbed the bank, shot that person, did that drive-by, or left their defined parole geography. This in my mind would be GOOD for the most people!

    Also as Tamar points out, as a parent of a young kid this technology would certainly be well received by me if anything BAD ever happened and my daughter were to be lost or god forbid taken against her will. Damn the torpedoes GO GET HER NOW! I personally wouldn’t want to have to wait for the authorities on this one unless they were going to hippity hop on it like a true emergency.

    So in exploring my feelings on all of this I think it comes down to context and personal values as to when and if this technology would be accepted. As in many things I think the answer is a little more complex than at first glance. Would ONE CHIP do the trick. I don’t think so! Would different chips with different contexts and different costs and stewards be my choice, probably.

    Just as I might have a laptop a smart phone and an iPod I might need a couple of chips monitored in a few different ways to suit my needs. My thought is I don’t WANT one forced from the government ever. But would I want people who have proven to do bad things to others to have them forced from the government YES, yes I would. I want this to be an opt-in service all the way for those of us who have proven to be trustworthy in society. I would want to own it and manage it as I requested for myself and my younger family members. Each of us over the age of 18 would have the choice to manage it as we saw fit (probably with some discussion like when we choose beneficiaries on insurance papers).

    Oh yeah and sorry kid, until you are paying your own way in life I reserve the right to “check in” on you especially if you haven’t called in an update on time.

    Thanks Tamar for the thought provoking discussion. ; )

    Justin R. Sturges

    • Interesting thoughts, Justin. I don’t see the parallels between the right to bear arms and a (required? voluntary?) tracking device.

      I do hear you though that it could potentially be used to track locations for no good reason. Therefore, maybe the government should not have access to it. Perhaps it should be maintained by a third party.

      I really like your thoughts and I appreciate your lengthy response!

  • Dov Weinstock says:

    Those statistics about missing people surely include people who intentionally went missing. Those people are entitled to their privacy, if they haven’t done anything illegal of course.
    Generally though, an interesting discussion. Personally I come down on the side of the privacy advocates – but would encourage people to voluntarily have themselves tracked, a la lojack.

    • Dov, I know that. But the question is this – should they intentionally go missing?

      The guy from my high school actually intentionally went missing, from what I hear. Without going into specifics, it was a financial situation. My comment that he was in “good physical health” intentionally didn’t touch upon the fact that he probably isn’t in good mental health.

      If your father disappeared willingly, is this something you wouldn’t desperately want to resolve? You wouldn’t want to find him? If your child went missing because she got in a fight with you, would you say “well, she wanted to disappear” and discount that as a real reason for justifying the existence of these devices?

      Believe it or not since it doesn’t come across in this article, I am a privacy advocate, but at the end of the day, I’d rather save myself or my loved ones the emotional hardship of dealing with the disappearance of myself of a loved one.

  • Justin Sturges says:

    I guess my line of thought on the parallel between the right to bear arms and NOT giving the government the power over your tracking GPS is that the government needs a power check. The right to bear arms is a power check. If the government had visibility into your GPS movements that in my mind would be too much and would need a power check.

    What if you wanted to go to a protest, visit a dissident, or exercise any of our other beautiful rights and freedoms that might not be in favor at the time?

    Wouldn’t you think twice if you thought you might be watched and tracked? Our founders in all their wisdom saw this and did all they could to prevent too much government power over our individual freedoms including giving us the right to bear arms. If they insured us the right to bear arms, don’t you think that giving us the right to NOT be tracked by the government would be a given?

    Giving the government visibility into your every movement (if they were “supposed” to look or not is a very slippery slope. The only way to protect against that is to not give it to them at all. At least for the typical citizen in good standing.

    Yeah it was a little stretch but I believe these things fall in the same bucket of checks and balances.

    Justin

    • Ah, that makes sense. That’s a real good argument for this not to be in the hands of the government (I was undecided on that point).

      I think thinking twice before posting online is no different than thinking twice before doing something where you could be watched or tracked. I don’t even mean that with an implanted device; hidden cameras are everywhere, and that’s not going to change as the technology gets more affordable.

  • sasha says:

    Although I understand your concerns, don’t you think this would leave so much room for mismanagement of this sensitive information? Trust the government with this info? The government does lots and lots of shady stuff and leaks are a regular thing. Who could be trusted with this?

    • I don’t have a deal-breaking preference — I’m leaving it for the mainstream to decide. The government doesn’t HAVE to do this, but that’s one option. I’m actually more inclined to go with a private company myself.

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