How Pervasive is GPS

My previous post about GPS started me thinking about GPS tracking as opposed to GPS receiving. We’ve all seen James Bond films where he plants a tracking device on a car, and then he can follow the car. In the old days tracking wasn’t done using GPS, but now it is.

Some companies offer GPS tracking services.  How does this work? As far as I understand it, this means that company X makes a tracking device which can be placed in a car (say). The device has a GPS receiver and a transmitter which transmits the received GPS data somehow to the company X’s server. I’ll discuss below how this is done. A customer may then log in to company X’s server and view the data. Or company X puts it online if the data is to be public. For example, the location of the viking ship Sea Stallion that sailed from Denmark to Dublin in 2007 could be followed online, because it had a GPS tracking device. For another example, shipping containers now carry transmitters, and the location of a particular container in a port such as Dublin port can be precisely determined.  Transmitters can be used to track birds, animals, cars, mobile phones, people…

There appear to be lots of examples.   Some companies equip their vehicles with built-in GPS devices that allow a command centre to know the vehicle’s location. Pet collars have been outfitted with GPS devices to enable owners to locate their lost pets. Some paroled criminals must wear ankle monitors so they can be tracked.   Mobile (cellular) phones are embedded with GPS devices to synchronize time changes when a person leaves a certain time zone. Cartographers use GPS devices to make maps and surveyors use them to determine property boundaries. Airlines use them to locate planes and even fly them. Runners use GPS to measure the length of their run and how long it took. Young male drivers get cheaper insurance if they agree to install a GPS tracking device in their car. The list appears to be endless. {Added 11/6/2013, an article expressing similar sentiments on the BBC website]

Company X that supplies GPS tracking devices must have a way of collecting the GPS data. I don’t know how this happens.  The tracking device has to transmit the GPS data to somewhere.  This could be sent to the nearest mobile phone mast, I suppose, and company X has to pay for that. Perhaps it could be sent to a satellite – for ocean going yachts and ships this must be what happens. This satellite is not a GPS satellite, I presume, it is a satellite owned or rented by company X.

The mobile phone angle is interesting, because most mobile phones now carry a GPS receiver. What if company X is itself a mobile phone company? Then company X automatically has the capability to receive the GPS data that the GPS receiver in your phone is receiving: your phone could simply transmit this data to the mobile phone company via the nearest mast. This might happen without us knowing. I don’t know for a fact if this happens or not, but I suspect it does. Maybe we agree to it in the fine print. I have no idea what a mobile phone company does with that data, but I would like to know.

The US Supreme Court recently issued a ruling on whether law enforcement could place a GPS tracking device on a suspect without a warrant.  “We hold that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search,’” they wrote. The question “does the government need a warrant to track my location in real time via my mobile phone” appears to be unclear legally in the US.  I would like to know the legal situation in Ireland.

There will come a day when all cars have GPS trackers and speeding tickets will be handed out thanks to GPS.  Think of a simple example. Suppose you are driving on a motorway and you are recorded in one location at a certain time.  Suppose there is a speed limit of 120 km/hr. If the GPS tracker in your car shows you to be 130km down the road one hour later, then this is conclusive proof that you broke the speed limit. Therefore you can be sent a speeding ticket in the post.  Actually, this could already be done using the cameras at toll booths, which have clocks on them. Big brother, etc.

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