Trackers everywhere

Published: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 21, 2003 at 1:11 a.m.

An ordinary day at the zoo for Timothy Neher was quickly turning traumatic. ``It was the first time I ever got to take out my niece and nephew by myself,'' he remembers of the 1997 outing. ``Everything was fine until lunchtime. I glanced up at the menu at the snack bar; it couldn't have been more than a few seconds, but when I looked down they were gone.''


FYI: A cart for bread, butter and preferences

Shoppers may want to think twice before indulging in another carton of ice cream. The shopping cart might give them away.

At two California stores, in Moraga and Cameron Park, the Safeway grocery chain is testing a cart that uses infrared tracking to learn more about people's buying habits. Infrared sensors on the cart and elsewhere in the store keep a record of customer movement, even how long they linger in each aisle.

``If you're in the produce section, or the deli or frozen foods, it knows where you are,'' said Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman.

Customers can swipe their Safeway club card through a box mounted on the cart, which quickly consults a database of recent purchases, said Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman. Dowling said customers liked the system because it offered savings tailored to their needs.

For example, if the database indicates weekly milk purchases, the cart might offer a discount on milk when the customer arrives in the dairy section.

But in addition to helping merchants refine their own sales efforts, the information gained can be resold, although Dowling said his company does not do so.

David Sorkin, associate professor of law at the John Marshall Law School's Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law in Chicago, said, ``People generally don't think much about the privacy implications when they sign up for these club cards.'' The customers may like the discounts that the cards provide, Sorkin said, but the stores are gaining even more.

``We haven't seen people getting any tangible benefits from allowing their habits to be monitored,'' he said.

Safeway, which has been testing the carts since May, has no plans to install them in other stores. But Sorkin predicts that such technologies will become more common.

``We have not yet begun to see marketing people exploit location information, but we will,'' he said. ``It does seem pretty troublesome.'

Location is everything

  • Powered by Pomals Blackberry: GPS-enabled sleeve fits around palmtops and tracks location. When the BlackBerry contacts the Pomals monitoring station, it can request location-specific information and services and display a map showing the user's position. Cost: $129 for the sleeve, plus a $15 monthly service fee. Information:

  • National Scientific Urban Tracker IIK child locator backpack: Battery-powered GPS tracking system hidden in a rugged, child-size book bag. Available in a variety of colors. Location can be tracked through a password-protected Web site; no call center service. Includes an emergency call button. Software allows parents to establish a virtual fence, sending an alert if the child strays beyond authorized areas while wearing the pack. Cost: $695, including the first 240 location checks. Additional bundles of 240 checks are $35. Information:

  • Digital Angel Personal Safety and Location System: For people with health conditions or mental impairments. Pager-size, clip-on GPS monitoring unit includes an emergency call button. Location information can be obtained through a password-protected Web site or by calling a Digital Angel call center. Monitor unit automatically sends alerts, by e-mail or phone, if the wearer wanders beyond a preset boundary. Alerts are also sent if the wearer falls down and remains prone for longer than a minute. System includes a thermal sensor watch. Cost: $399, plus a $29.95 monthly service fee. Information:

  • His 5-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew were nowhere in sight. ``I felt that panicky feeling every parent dreads,'' Neher said.

    Then the five-minute crisis was over. The children had wandered behind the snack stand.

    ``When I took the kids home that night, I told their parents we'd had some excitement, but I'd come up with a great idea for a company.''

    Almost six years later, the company, Wherify Wireless in Redwood Shores, Calif., has produced the Personal Locator, a satellite-based tracking device intended to head off the kind of panic that Neher experienced.

    Location-sensing technologies based on satellite-based systems or infrared tracking are not new. But design advances have made the components small enough to fit into hand-held units, or to be built into bracelets or backpacks, relaying information that can readily be monitored on the Web. Couple that with a more security-conscious world, and suddenly tracking systems seem to be everywhere, keeping tabs on the whereabouts of children, elderly relatives and even belongings - in addition, of course, to helping drivers, hikers and sailors find their way from point to point.

    Strong demand

    But for most consumers, the tracking may be not always be so much a service as a cost of doing business. Increasingly, cell phones can allow your location to be traced, ostensibly to help in an emergency. Grocery carts equipped with infrared devices keep track of your wanderings in the ice cream aisle or the produce section. And fare-paying medallions like E-ZPass compile a record of where you drive.

    Location industry veterans see a strong demand for tracking technology.

    ``The demand for pure navigation systems is limited,'' said Marc Prioleau, director of marketing at Sirf Technology of San Jose, Calif., a developer of satellite-based navigation components. Boats and planes are a small market, and the largest potential area for navigation systems is cars.

    Prioleau noted, however, that tracking gear could be included in almost anything. It is already used by shipping companies to monitor their trucks and by law enforcement agencies to keep tabs on parolees, and new applications are beginning to emerge. ``I think that's going to be the driving force going forward,'' he said. ``We're starting to see a pretty major uptick in sales.''

    Two-edged sword

    Even as such devices are becoming more attractive to consumers, their two-edged nature is also becoming more apparent.

    Eric Orr, a retired police officer and private security consultant in Chesapeake, Va., liked the concept of the Wherify Personal Locator so much he bought five of them and plans to buy five more.

    ``I have two young children, and with all the nieces and nephews there are a lot of kids in our family,'' he said. ``When I'm done, all of them are going to be wearing these bracelets.''

    But as a security expert specializing in surveillance, Orr also sees the potential of this technology to monitor people without their knowledge or consent.

    ``It would be very easy to mount this type of device in a car and keep track of where people are going all the time,'' he pointed out. ``It only takes half a twist to make this a real invasion of privacy. It's very scary.''

    The technology at the heart of the Personal Locator and comparable devices is the Global Positioning System (GPS), developed by the military in the 1970s and '80s for navigation applications, like helping sailors and pilots determine their location.

    GPS is based on a network of 24 satellites, each constantly broadcasting a radio signal. A receiver unit on the ground compares the signals coming in from three or four satellites to calculate its precise location, usually to within 20 yards.

    Some receivers can refine this calculation using additional timing data obtained from ground-based communication networks, often improving their accuracy to within about five yards. Infrared sensor systems can also monitor the movement of objects, with much better accuracy but within a smaller area.

    Wherify's Personal Locator is worn on the wrist and looks like a digital watch pumped up on steroids.

    Parents can give it to their children and then use the Wherify Web site to find out where they are. It has GPS and cellular telephone components, so whenever a user logs onto the Web site, the network basically calls the Locator and asks the built-in GPS device for its location, in latitude and longitude.

    Neher said the bracelet design is better than stitching the system into a backpack, because packs are easy to take off.

    Those coordinates are then plotted on a map and displayed on the Web. If parents are not near a computer, they can call the Wherify center and ask an operator to find their child.

    ``If you're in Central Park and you lose your kids, we can tell you over the phone where they are,'' Neher said. ``We can say they are 50 feet in front of the north gate.''

    Makes life efficient

    Another company, Pomals Inc. of Westport, Conn., is developing a similar tracker built into a child-size backpack, but its first product is aimed at the corporate world.

    This month, the company introduced a GPS-enabled sleeve for hand-held computers, which allows the unit to know its position.

    When the device uses its wireless connection to check in with the network, it also reports its location and can ask for various location-specific information, whether the user is looking for the nearest client or sales lead or a good Japanese restaurant in the neighborhood.

    Coppy Holzman, president and chief executive of the company, says this type of location-aware device can make ordinary tasks much more efficient.

    ``If you're going to the cleaners, the PDA will know when you're getting close and can send a signal to let them know you'll be pulling up so they can get your shirts,'' he said. ``If you're going home, it can automatically turn on the heat when you're a mile away from the door.''

    But he acknowledges that this type of convenience comes with a potentially significant trade-off: information about people's everyday movements can be very valuable.

    ``Our company is starting to get noticed, and after people looking for jobs, the greatest number of calls we get are from people who want to buy our data,'' Holzman said. ``But that's not our business. We don't store the data about where people go, and we don't sell it.''

    Tracking anything

    Many people are in the business of collecting and selling data, of course, and Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog group, predicts that location-tracking systems will become a more common tool for them. ``Marketing people want to know as much about people as they can,'' he said.

    And soon the location-information industry will hit the jackpot. In response to Federal Communications Commission mandates, wireless carriers have begun to incorporate location technology into cell phones, partly because many people use them to report emergencies but do not know exactly where they are calling from, hindering rescue efforts.

    A side effect of the so-called Enhanced 911 rules is that every cell phone will soon become a mobile tracking unit, monitoring the location from which every call is placed.

    In addition to the data's potential use in marketing, Rotenberg said, the ability to monitor people's movements could be used by employers, to find out where workers are using company-issued phones; in law enforcement, to determine where people are at a specific time; or in domestic disputes, to log patterns of behavior of, say, a wayward husband who often makes calls from his secretary's home.

    ``Real-time location data is the holy grail in the mobile phone industry,'' Rotenberg said.

    Even more innovative applications are on the horizon, innovations that depend on tracking individual movements. For example, a state task force in Oregon this month proposed a pay-as-you-drive system that uses GPS tracking to determine how far every vehicle travels, as a possible alternative to a gasoline tax. ``You can really track anything you want,'' Prioleau said.

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