Every step you take

Human monitoring systems are becoming more commonplace, creating new ethical dilemmas. Julia Pierce reports.

The population of the UK has always been naturally conservative when it comes to issues of personal identification. In virtually the only country in Europe without a national photo identity card scheme, the right to privacy is jealously guarded.

In recent years, an increasing number of devices allowing police and private companies to determine the location of people and property have arrived on the market. Though these have many practical and benign uses, such as the ability to track members of staff during dangerous situations, or in aiding the recovery of stolen property such as cash boxes and cars, a slight deviation from normal use can push their application into a more sinister realm.

Over the past decade, there has been an explosive rise in mobile phone ownership. But while this may give members of the public a sense of freedom and security, ironically it may also be paving the way to the use of systems that allow the user’s position to be pinpointed without their knowledge.

As far back as the mid 1990s, the US government had become alarmed by a rise in the number of emergency calls made from mobiles and the subsequent difficulties in tracing accident and crime victims unsure of their location.

As a result, in 1996 the Federal Communications Commission adopted the e911 mandate requiring all mobile phone operators to be capable of automatically supplying location information for every call made from a mobile within an accuracy of 125m.

Location, location, location

Several methods allow the position of a mobile user to be calculated, including cell-based methods where the angle or time a signal arrives at a base station is calculated. Although these could theoretically be installed by the network provider without users’ knowledge, and can even provide information about the location of the oldest models of phone, installation costs would be over £10,000 per cell, making this commercially unlikely.

But there are also a variety of hybrid methods available, including the installation of GPS chips in new handsets and Enhanced-Observed Time Difference (E-OTD), which works by measuring the time a signal arrives at surrounding base stations. This relies on software that is downloaded on to the smart card in the handset. However, it is only applicable to the latest devices and with O-ETD, phone users would actively have to give their permission for the software to be installed.

Though US legislation has experienced teething problems, not least the inability of the service providers to agree on a common enabling technology, in 2000 the European Commission also began to consider e911’s possibilities. At the moment, it seems unlikely that the EU will insist on implementing a similar rule, but as mobile ownership continues to rise this may change, raising concerns about the enforcing of involuntary monitoring of sections of the population.

But other pressures may eventually force the pace. Mobile telecoms service providers are facing pressure to recoup the costs of buying 3G licences and are well aware that the ability to provide user location information is commercial gold. While the technology has the ability to be applied to worthy tasks such as safeguarding social workers and other public service workers by keeping tabs on their movements, location targeted advertising or position-based telephone gaming would prove lucrative.

‘I feel that if this sort of thing was implemented there must be laws concerning how the location information would be used,’ says Simon de la Hoyde, group marketing director at location solution providers MapInfo. ‘There is a real risk that our every moment could be traced.’

However, the technology is now highly accurate and will no doubt cause this country’s criminals concern, as de la Hoyde explains: ‘The technology is tried, tested and accurate, and I see no reason why it could not be counted as admissible as evidence in court.’

Technologies allowing the authorities to monitor the public’s movements are already filtering through. In London, the Greater London Authority is set to implement a congestion charging scheme using cameras to record car registration plates for billing. But in Singapore, the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP) system, which came into operation in 1998 to replace a coupon-based scheme, relies on radio tagging using a radio frequency microchip. This gives central operations the ability to track vehicle movements by registering when the vehicle passes designated gantries through a signal transmitted from the in-car radio tag.

There is no reason why such a service should not eventually come to the UK if the initial charging scheme is a success.

Once the gantries are installed, a mixture of environmental pressures and intelligent engine design could theoretically lead to controls on the speed of movement in designated urban zones. Car manufacturer Lotus is currently developing an electro-hydraulic, Active Valve Train engine with the ability to switch from four to two-cylinder drive when in a congested area.

In a recent interview with The Engineer magazine, research manager Jamie Turner stated that it would be theoretically possible to enable the system to be switched to low power by, for instance, a local council’s pollution control transmitter when entering a congested area. But as he explains, drivers fearing the involuntary removal of their acceleration should not yet worry.

‘The problem is that the council would have to take responsibility for actions occurring because of the lack of power,’ he says. ‘For instance, if you were turning out on to a road and a lorry came hurtling along, if you didn’t have the power to accelerate away in time it would be the council’s responsibility for denying you that power.’

In February the Commission for Integrated Transport, the government’s independent advisory body, advocated the use of GPS in-car receivers to charge drivers for using busy routes at peak times.

While the effectiveness of this would be questionable, owing to signal disruption by buildings in urban areas and the ability of drivers to simply disconnect the signal box to avoid tolls, an RF microchip hidden in the car’s body at the point of manufacture would not have such disadvantages. But the very fact that an advisory body has proposed the nationwide use of vehicle tracking on the roads will worrydrivers who feel uncomfortable with having their movements observed.

Businesses are already monitoring and thus indirectly controlling driver behaviour through the use of GPS-enabled fleet tracking. Transmitters installed in vans and lorries send location co-ordinates to a central office, allowing firms to monitor their every movement. While this may be good for business, the idea of being constantly watched by an electronic eye can place undue pressure on drivers.

The main fear of Big Brother conspiracy theorists is, of course, the tracking of humans as they go about their business. In the UK, the increasing installation of CCTV cameras on city streets is causing outrage among civil liberties groups. But in the US, citizens are actively asking to be fitted with RF chips.

These carry personal and medical information which can be revealed after a scanner is passed over them, in the same way that microchips used in identifying household pets yield details of their owner’s address, and would help identify a person if they were involved in an accident. Since US company Applied Digital Solutions announced its VeriChip system, which is inserted under the skin, over 2,000 teenagers have asked to be fitted with the device.

The company has also just agreed to supply the technology to three unnamed Latin American countries where kidnapping is rife, along with its Digital Angel GPS location device – a watch plus a box the size of a cigarette packet which clips on to a belt. This can provide pinpointed location details when activated in an emergency, though battery technology is not yet powerful enough to generate a sustained signal for constant tracking.

Last month, three members of the south Florida Jacobs family appeared on the talk show circuit, claiming to be the world’s first family to be chipped. Although it transpired that the father had previously suffered from cancer and required a portable record of his medical information to ensure he was given the correct treatment in an emergency, in the wrong hands such technologies have the potential to be abused. Under anaesthetic, installation in a body is relatively simple – whether the recipient wants it or not.

Though a GPS device cannot be placed in the body as it requires a power supply, RF tags do not have this complication. In a project devised by UK firm the NCC Group, cattle in Botswana were fitted with the devices in order to monitor bull rustling.

The capabilities of this system illustrate how a human monitoring system could work. In cattle, the chip is inserted into the animal’s body through its mouth, remaining embedded in its stomach throughout its life. When the animal passes through a gate fitted with a scanner, the chip emits a low frequency signal allowing a centralised computer to plot the animal’s movements.

‘The RF tag used on cattle is about the size of a cold capsule,’ says Aileen Ross, industry marketing manager for RF tag manufacturers Zebra Technologies. ‘Because they are inside their body, tampering and removal is very hard.’ As cows have multiple stomachs, the chip tends to stay put in the first stomach, or rumen. With humans, tracking could probably only continue until the chip had passed through their digestive system, taking around 24 hours, unless it could be modified to implant in the gut once inside.

Potential threat

The main use of monitoring units is confined to the visible form, in the shape of radio ankle units used to impose curfews on suspected or convicted criminals. While this might seem a worthy use, it too could be developed to infringe rights. US firm Radio Systems Corporation has recently developed a collar that gives the wearer a shock of up to 30 seconds if they stray beyond set boundaries. Currently designed for pet use, it would not take much to upgrade the technology – and the level of the shock – for human containment.

At present, the use of GPS and RF tracking technologies in their more sinister form is limited to pets, possessions and assets. But with businesses and governments standing to gain from the ability to track and control sections of the population, continuance of this limitation is by no means certain. As can be seen, the gap between legitimate applications and loss of human liberties is in reality very small indeed.