GPS and Privacy Concerns, Research Paper Example

While most people consider GPS technology to be a relatively new concept, it actually dates back to the late 1970’s. At that time, satellites that allow for GPS technology were meant for military installations; however the technology has branched out in various forms. Today, cellphones and other handheld gadgets are available and can track the exact or near exact location of a person at just about any time. Not only is GPS a popular thing amongst individuals, it is also present in the business, legal and commercial industries as well. Notably, GPS can be a positive, but there are also numerous concerns with the ability to track a person’s location, for privacy and safety reasons. This paper will examine GPS technology, privacy concerns and how it is directly affecting our culture.

GPS & Cultural Concerns

People in America are driven by immediate gratification and GPS technology provides, just that. The ability to keep tabs on children, spouses or workers is seen as a positive because it is for their safety and effectiveness.  Even though it is seen as a positive by many, some suggest that it is changing the way that Americans interact.  It has also been said that Americans are also too dependent on technology. Families are using GPS to track their children and spouses, which creates some concern with privacy issues (Xie & Wang, 2011). While it is acceptable for a parent to know their child’s whereabouts, it is not necessarily acceptable for a spouse to track every movement of their partner.

Regardless if a person is in a relationship or not, they still have a reasonable right to privacy.  This can also create problems for those that may be involved in a bad or abusive relationship. GPS tracking can take place through cell phone applications with the individual not even being aware of it. Being that the monitoring is a secret or without a person’s permission creates concerns about an individual’s rights to privacy. Along with privacy concerns, there also concerns such as safety considerations. Consider a woman that may leaving her spouse for abuse reasons, and if the husband could effectively track her every move. This could likely place her in danger and also directly violates her right to privacy.

Today, the use of cellular id and Wi-Fi make it possible to track people’s locations at many different areas (Xie & Wang, 2011).  Not only can a person keep up with their loved one, but they also depend on GPS technology to assist them in their daily endeavors. In today’s world there is little need to rely on a compass or map, when a positioning system can give you accurate and detailed instruction. This makes camping or traveling to different locations easier, but it also creates a deficit that could prove to be detrimental in the case of a lost GPS signal. The reliance is acceptable, if there is appropriate knowledge in case of a failure, however often times that knowledge is not present. Also consider the fact that those GPS devices, that are providing information, can also be tracked. So, one has to consider are they ever alone or in a private setting?

The Big Brother Phenomenon

Years back, the slogan “Big brother is watching you” was a precursor to personal GPS technology. It was advocated that the government was watching every move of the citizens and tracking their habits. This was considered to be a bad thing and created panic in various community settings. While it is doubtful that the government is monitoring the average citizen’s habits, it is true that the old style of surveillance is far outdated. Today, it is possible for law enforcement to conduct surveillance through a few clicks of a mouse at their office desk (Bailey, 2013). This can take place through the tracking of cell phones, vehicles and personal devices such as ankle monitors. In many cases, individuals placed on house arrest or probation may be sentenced to wear an ankle monitor that transmits their every location to law enforcement officials. GPS tracking is also used when police are looking for those suspected of dangerous crimes. Given the fact that there are about 331 million cell phone subscriptions, with about 90% of Americans have a cell phone, it provides a good tool for law enforcement (Bailey, 2013). Law enforcement has the ability to locate cell phones, through the company or provider. Granted this must be done with a court order, the technology is still available and widely used. The technology works off what is called ‘pinging’ the tower to find out where the cell phone is at the time of use. This is helpful in cases where there is an active threat to society, or emergency, such as someone lost in the woods, but it also opens the door to potential abuses (Halperin, 2007). With this type of technology it would be possible for a person to be stalked or tracked for inappropriate reasons. This opens the door to abuse and an opportunity for additional crimes. For example, if GPS was placed on a vehicle or phone, an unsuspecting victim could be tracked. This would thereby make it easier to facilitate a crime, against a person, meaning that the location of a person could be used for personal gain, rather than law enforcement needs.

Other privacy concerns are cameras that display GPS technology and are placed throughout communities for surveillance. The cameras are meant to assist in keeping the streets safe, however can also pinpoint a person’s location and activities. Some are concerned that there will be additional breaches in privacy due to cameras, traffic light cameras and other tracking devices (Armstrong & Ruggles, 2005). There are concerns that governmental agencies will use the information to gather and use intelligence that is obtained by the surveillance cameras. Other issues with surveillance equipment are when they are used to track the habits or work of their employees. For example, there was a concern of New York taxi cab drivers when their employers placed GPS tracking systems to their cabs (Halperin, 2007). Cab drivers were concerned that they would be

scrutinized for any break in time or change that they might make to their schedule. While the company feels that they have the right to know where their cab is and the efficiency of the driver, the drivers had concerns that the information might be misused. Other companies across the globe also use GPS tracking, which gives them a good idea where an employee, vehicle or other equipment might be (Hambling, 2011).

Technology In The Wrong Hands

Whether it be privacy or any other concern surrounding GPS tracking, the fact that the technology can fall into the wrong hands is frightening. Being that there are hackers and other individuals that make a living from breaching systems, the same could happen with GPS technology. Issues such as identity theft could become more of a problem, as well as the wrong person tracking the location of a child. If a parent is receiving a signal from their child, then that means that a pedophile or other criminal could be receiving that very same signal. Same is true for taxi cab drivers or truck drivers. Where they are and whether or not they are stopped, potentially sleeping, could be traced back to their location. This opens up many concerns and potential problems that should be carefully considered. While GPS is a needed tool, it should also be carefully regarded. I know from past experience, that there are applications that can be installed on smart phones that allow friends and family members to see where I am at any given time. This not only lets the person know where I am, but could be a concern if there is a person that I do not want to know where I am. Privacy is an important piece of life and it should be carefully guarded. After all I would not want an ex-lover or enemy to know exactly where I am at all times. This could present a problem and lead to issues that would not have been a problem otherwise.

In conclusion, GPS is a positive in today’s society, but must be used cautiously. Individuals that choose to engage in location sharing should consider the dangers, as well as the benefits. Law enforcement, of course is expected to be made up of professionals, however should have to enter into a system of checks and balances, to ensure citizens’ rights to privacy.


Armstrong, M. P., & Ruggles, A. J. (2005). Geographic Information Technologies and Personal Privacy. Cartographica, 40(4), 63-73.

Bailey, R. (2013). Your Cellphone Is Spying on You. Reason, 44(8), 34-39.

Halperin, K. (2007). The Ethics of GPS. PC Magazine, 26(10), 17.

Hambling, D. (2011). GPS signals now help you call your mother, power your home, and even land your plane.. New Scientist, 209(2803), 44-47.

Xie, J., & Wang, S. (2011). A unified location sharing service with end user privacy control. Bell Labs Technical Journal, 16(2), 5-20.