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.
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.