Monday, March 02, 2009

Mobile Tracking: To Be Seen, or Not To Be Seen

If you weren't already tired of hearing about your friends' every move via Facebook, well now you can track their every move, with a range of mobile tracking technology. With just one touch of a button, you can pin-point friends, family and workmates' exact locations anywhere in the world. However concerns have been voiced about potential misuse of the technology and the risks it poses to people's privacy.

Founder of the Australian-based MapMates service, Michael Rosbson admits the technology has the potential to be misused, but says it is bound to prove useful for many tech-savvy Australians.

"One of my teenage sons came home one Friday afternoon and jumped straight onto My Space and Facebook to find out what his friends were doing that night," he says.

"He started texting friends on his mobile, and half an hour later he had the information he needed. About ten minutes later his twin brother arrived home and did exactly the same thing. I thought there had to be an easier way to do this."

The technology works by using the GPS navigation system in users' mobile phones. Once two users have accepted each other as 'mates', they can view each other's most recently updated location through the application on their phone, or on the system provider's website.

Mr Robson says users can choose how often their location is updated, and can even specify when each friend is able to view their location.

"Users have complete control, and can make themselves invisible whenever they like," he says.

"My son lets me see where he is during the week, but then switches it off on the weekends."

Mr Robson's MapMates was designed with savvy Gen Y users in mind, but he believes the technology could prove useful to a much wider audience.

"There has been a lot of interest from parents who say they like to know where their kids are," he says.

"The technoloyg works all around the world, and is not dependant upon your phone or phone carrier, so a lot of backpackers are finding it very useful. Coorporations and emergency services are also using it to make sure their employees are safe."

However, lack of phone reception in remote areas does pose limitations for users in regional Australia. Mr Robson says while the GPS satellite component will continue to operate, the service requires phone reception to send the location data back to the server.

"When the phone is out of reception, the system will continue to save your location history," he says.

"You may not have had reception for an hour, but when you do come back into reception, all the information that you have tracked over that hour, will be sent up to the server."

While the services may bring peace of mind to concerned families, alarm bells have been raised about the potential misuse of this technology by parents, partners or bosses. Deakin University Communications lecturer and former CEO of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association, Ross Monaghan, says these are valid concerns.

"One of my first concerns is the unintended consequences of people trying out these services, and not realising that friends and family can track them," he says.

"Also, if you're on the web, anyone can potentially track you. No systems are that secure."

According to Mr Monaghan, the same pitfalls of social networking sites are likely to afflict those using location services.

"Just becuase you take down a homepage doesn't necessarily mean that it disappears from the web forever," he says.

"We just have to trust the organisations that are keeping this data, that they are going to keep it safe as well."

Mr Monaghan says an increased dedication to privacy education by social networking sites and organisations is something he would like to see.

"We are finding younger people don't necessarily look at the long term implications of publishing private details online," he says.

"This sort of digital dirt, whether it's on your Facebook page, in texts, photos, or being able to track you from one location to the next, it's something everyone really needs to be conscious of."

Despite the potential threats this technolgoy poses to people's privacy, Mr Robson believes the prospect of these systems to save lives, is worth the risk.

"Anything can be abused and misused," he says.

"This has the potential to be misused, but it also has the potential to save lives and be an extremely valuable tool.

"The day that someone's life is saved because we have been able to find somebody who has been injured or hurt, that will make it all worth while.

So is the public ready for mobile tracking? Or does it really present an invasion of privacy that is simply too great?

"I think there is a way to go before individuals will see any reason to be able to be tracked," Mr Monaghan says.

"It's too early to say that these services won't be adopted, but I think as people see the personal and business uses for them, the technology will become more and more popular."

produced by Anna McManamey

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