It's safe to say most people are familiar with using Global Positioning System (GPS) devices in order to get directions (matter of fact, I threw out all my road atlases and the paper maps AAA gave me a long time ago). GPS works by determining your position by timing signals sent from satellites. I check mine every day to figure out if the highway is clear or back roads are a better option for getting to work and it routinely saves me lots of time and frustration.
This concept entails using GPS on ourselves. However, there's also another use for GPS with both useful and darker connotations: using GPS tracking on someone or something else. Let's take a look at the concept and the technology that can handle the job.
Why would you want to track someone or something?
I realize the concept of using GPS tracking sounds creepy and I certainly don't advocate misusing it. Like many technologies (perhaps best exemplified by the "Genesis" concept from the film "Star Trek II") it has the ability to be used for good as well as evil. While unpleasant concepts involving stalking, spying on others or perhaps playing "Big Brother" on employees (and docking their pay for excessive time spent out at lunch) come to mind, there are also a lot of legitimate reasons afoot here.
Transportation companies might benefit from GPS tracking so they can figure out how and where they should best deploy their vehicles and to monitor their whereabouts in the event of thefts or accidents. One such tracking service for business is called " Google Maps Coordinate" and costs $20 per user per month with a 12 month contract/$24 per user on a monthly subscription. Google frames this in a more positive way than just telling bosses they can spy on their workers: "Google Maps Coordinate is a workforce management tool that improves the efficiency of your mobile teams. People are shown on a Google Map, making it easy to assign jobs to the nearest available team member. By getting real-time visibility into where teams are and what jobs they are doing, work can be scheduled in a smarter, more efficient way." Telogis and Navman Wireless also offer large-scale business GPS tracking.
The concept doesn't appeal only to businesses, however. Parents might want to keep tabs on their children to make sure they are safe (or not playing hooky) either during a regular day or while on vacation at Disney, for instance. A world-famous swimmer crossing the English Channel might want to be tracked so fans can see his or her progress. Nervous guys like Cameron Frye from the film "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" might want to make sure Dad's beloved Ferrari isn't being madly driven around town by those crazy guys from the garage. Owners of neighborhood-roaming pets could get a glimpse as to where Baron the German Shepherd ran off to this time (on that note, I'd like to see where my cat disappears when we let him out, or how he manages to show up like clockwork at dinnertime).
Because we have kids engaged in various sporting and school activities my wife and I are usually engaged in an elaborate dance I call "Who will drive whom where and when?" This often involves handoffs of the kids from one parent to the other depending on logistics and schedules. I wouldn't mind being tracked via GPS so my wife can determine my ETA (and vice versa) rather than having to call or text the details. It's illegal to text while driving in my state and pulling over on any given highway in the Greater Boston area can be dangerous (it's actually legal to drive in the breakdown lanes in some areas here!).
No matter the reason for using this tactic, there may be legal considerations involved so always make sure you abide by the laws and regulations of your country, state, and/or place of business. Brickhouse Security has some useful tips on the subject.
Your own devices
The first and easiest method is to use what you've probably got: your own gear. You could turn on GPS then provide your smartphone to the trackee and use Apple's " Find my Device" function (you need their "Find My iPhone" app installed on the device first) or Google's " Android Device Manager " which is accurate to within a few meters.
The above method is probably not the best idea, however, since that leaves you without a device. There are apps that can be used instead. I already mentioned Google Maps Coordinate, but there are also consumer-based programs like Life360 (free for basic version, $5 per month/$50 per year for a premium version), GPS Tracking Pro for Android (free) and Find My Friends for iOS (free). These are installed on the devices of everyone whom you wish to keep track of (or those who plan to track others). Of course, the successful use of these apps depends on two factors:
- The willingness of the trackee(s) to install/keep it installed in the first place
- The willingness of the trackee(s) to carry the device with them at all times. It doesn't do much good if your kid leaves his phone at school and goes to the movies, or a taxi driver operating your vehicle loans it to a fellow taxi-driver then takes a nap. There is of course also the ominous possibility of someone else removing, stealing or destroying the device.
GPS-tracked gadgets such as SecurUs eZoom ($99.99 plus a monthly service plan fee of $12.99-$19.99 depending on your options) and Pocketfinder (129.95 plus a $12.95 monthly service plan fee) are available. These are small nondescript plastic objects which can be tucked away discreetly. There are also GPS tracking watches such as the Oxking Mini Child GPS Watch for $118.75 and the Hereo Child GPS Watch for $149. And, of course, there is the RoamEO GPS pet collar for $179. These are probably better options for security-related reasons to engage in GPS tracking.
What about GPS implants; something placed in a body which can't be removed or lost? Well, that idea isn't really ready at this stage - a transmitter requires power so it wouldn't be a one-time operation nor something quick and painless. Furthermore, there are also some concerns about cancer after experimentation on laboratory mice. So, I don't think we're quite up to Hollywood standards on that front.
I've already stated that GPS tracking should only be used for legitimate and beneficial purposes (though teen readers might question whether it's really beneficial if Mom shows up at the park and drags them home at 10 pm; sorry guys, but I was wrong to stay out late back in the 80's too).
There may be times when it turns up unpleasant information; that employee who parked a company van outside of Louie's Lounge for three hours or those guys who ran off with your iPhone so you tracked them down to their apartment building. Always follow proper procedure. Get HR involved to deal with Louie's lush. Call the police instead of accosting an alleged thief. The New York Times reported last month that some people were acting as vigilantes and resorting to violence to recover stolen smartphones. I like technology as much as the next sysadmin (which is to say some days a lot and others not very much), but no device is worth a physical confrontation, injury or worse.
Oh, and if you do find out that Baron was the dog responsible for knocking over the Johnson's garbage cans you may come to agree with my mantra that "sometimes technology brings to light things that were best left hidden!" I wonder if the RoamEO GPS dog collar comes with a discount on obedience school lessons?
Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.