We Know Where You Are


One of the bigger stories over the weekend has been the resurgence of issue of companies using cellphones to track employees. With an increase in the number of devices that support GPS queries, or just the greater ability to triangulate a cellphone based on the current cells that handset is using, the number of firms that offer tracking services has grown dramatically.

According to a story from ZDNet, the sheer number of firms now offering this service is starting to raise privacy concerns.

Not everybody is happy about being monitored, however, and civil rights group Liberty says the growth of tracking raises data privacy concerns.

Kevin Brown, operations director of tracking firm Followus, said there was nothing covert about tracking, thanks to strict regulations.

"An employee has to consent to having their mobile tracked. A company can't request to track a phone without the user knowing," he said. "Under government rules we send random alerts to each phone we track, informing the user they are being monitored."

All that is needed to trace a mobile phone is a computer with an Internet connection. Once a phone is activated for tracking, it becomes a mobile electronic tag and its approximate position can be followed using the service provider's Web site.

Whilst some companies also send random alerts to the cellphone being tracked, which helps to avoid the possibility of someone signing a borrowed cellphone up to tracking services, not all companies make use of this kind of notification. A recent article in the UK's Guardian newspaper illustrates jsut how easy it is to abuse such systems:

For the past week I've been tracking my girlfriend through her mobile phone. I can see exactly where she is, at any time of day or night, within 150 yards, as long as her phone is on. It has been very interesting to find out about her day. Now I'm going to tell you how I did it.
First I had to get hold of her phone. It wasn't difficult. We live together and she has no reason not to trust me, so she often leaves it lying around. And, after all, I only needed it for five minutes.

I unplugged her phone and took it upstairs to register it on a website I had been told about. It looks as if the service is mainly for tracking stock and staff movements: the Guardian, rather sensibly, doesn't want me to tell you any more than that. I ticked the website's terms and conditions without reading them, put in my debit card details, and bought 25 GSM Credits for �£5 plus vat.

Almost immediately, my girlfriend's phone vibrated with a new text message. "Ben Goldacre has requested to add you to their Buddy List! To accept, simply reply to this message with 'LOCATE'". I sent the requested reply. The phone vibrated again. A second text arrived: "WARNING: [this service] allows other people to know where you are. For your own safety make sure that you know who is locating you." I deleted both these text messages.

The primary benefit seen by many companies, despite the potential for misuse, is one of asset tracking and security of remote workers. By knowing where a delivery driver is, for example, the company can better monitor delivery routes, and can also redirect the driver should a customer call.

Civil rights groups have thrown up potential concerns, over and above those demonstrated by The Guardian.

Civil rights group Liberty said there could be privacy and human rights issues surrounding the use of tracking particularly given the unequal relationship between employee and employer.

"There could well be worries that staff feel coerced into agreeing to be monitored. The technology is neutral, it's the way it is used that is the problem," said Liberty's Jen Corlew.

She said the development of tracking was worrying because it was being driven by the marketplace and not by workers' rights.

"We are already seeing an ebbing away of employee rights and we at Liberty will be keeping a close eye on this area to see if companies who do monitor their staff are complying with the regulations," she said.

On the flip side, logistics companies claim that tracking via cellphone allows them to continue providing enhanced services already provided through the use of more expensive GPS devices, at a much lower cost.

"There are benefits in service enhancements–providing a better service to customers and all the attendant advantages that can bring, and also operational gains from managing people and assets better," said Wildings, a professor of supply chain risk management.

Perhaps the most critical point in this debate is the one of transparency. As long as employees are aware of the tracking, then there can be benefits for the company, the employee and customers. When the tracking becomes covert, issues of trust and privacy enter into the debate.

| February 6th, 2006 | Posted in Location Based Services |

2 Responses to “We Know Where You Are”

  1. James Quintana Pearce Says:

    Your points are valid, but for accuracy the company probably used by the Guardian (world tracker) also sends out the alerts.


  2. Phones Review Says:

    This is a good article and yes many of this is true many companies are getting in on this. Good read thanks.

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