I came across this picture as part of an advertisement for Sprint mobile communications technology. “GPS so robust you’ll swear things almost find you”, the ad promises. That sounds powerful, and useful. Stop to think, though – do you really need robust GPS?
GPS stands for Global Positioning System. GPS networks use satellites orbiting planet Earth to locate GPS devices to with great precision. That’s a boon to mapmakers, archaeologists, and people who work in remote locations that require good navigation without roadmarks.
However, an increasing number of people are getting GPS devices in order to do things that they have always been able to do just fine without the help of satellites overhead. People use GPS to locate the nearest pharmacy, when they might look at a phone book, or to get driving directions, when they might just look at a road map.
There’s nothing wrong with using GPS technology to accomplish these tasks, but there might be an unanticipated cost. With GPS becoming ubiquitous, we just might lose the ability to get lost.
Getting lost is nice in an aesthetic sense, because it often results in the discovery of things we never intended to find. The ability to get lost is also fundamental to our liberty. When you’re lost, after all, no one knows where you are. We are guaranteed against unreasonable search and seizure of our papers and our “persons”. Surely, the people who voted on the Bill of Rights never considered the possibility that people could be searched for and found wherever they are, but they surely did consider the ability of agents of the government to spy on citizens, following them wherever they go, looking for bits of information that could be used to blackmail or otherwise control their targets.
GPS provides the ability to track people with a thoroughness that is unprecedented. With GPS, you don’t have to swear that things almost find you. They do. GPS is a two way system. In order for a GPS system to work, it has to feed its parent system information about where you are. The system tracks you, following you wherever you go. GPS thus creates the potential for a record of your movements throughout the day, day after day.
Companies like Sprint can promise privacy safeguards, but in the current climate of Homeland Insecurity, those safeguards don’t count for much. Under George W. Bush, the government has been assembling databases from commercial databases including information about health records, financial activity, and private communications. The government has issued secret subpoenas to communications companies like Sprint, only revealed later through leaks or lawsuits, pressuring companies to hand over electronic records of their customers’ activities, in violation of privacy guarantees the companies made to their customers.
It wasn’t known criminals or terrorists who were tracked. Ordinary American citizens were spied upon. There is no technical reason that GPS information about citizens’ movements could not be added to the government databases.
If Americans find themselves dependent on GPS technology, they will stand in danger of losing their liberty.