Rory Sutherland

The Wiki Man | 12 September 2009

A fortnightly column on technology and the web

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Imagine for a moment that every policeman in Britain were issued with two or three tracking devices, each the size of a small packet of chewing gum. Magnetically attached to a car, it would record the target’s every movement for 48 hours using its inbuilt GPS. When retrieved and plugged into a computer, it would plot the places visited by the suspect as a line on Google earth.

Now imagine the same device equipped with a simple SIM card and mobile phone transmitter. A little larger now, perhaps the size of a small matchbox, the device can be programmed to send a text to a pre-assigned number revealing its position, speed and direction of travel. Send a simple SMS code and it might reply with *00015.6716,E,5108.3743,N,8.87,338.42*060909,151948.000** to reveal that it is at location 000°15.6716’E and 51°08.3743’N travelling at 8.87mph at a bearing of 338° on 6 September at 15:19 GMT.

Now before the police were issued with this kind of thing, one would imagine a fairly extensive debate. Is this not a gross invasion of privacy? Should the Home Secretary be informed? Is it admissible as evidence?

As with CCTV, it poses interesting ethical and legislative questions. However technology now moves at a far faster pace than legislation. Never mind the police, ordinary members of the public can buy these items on eBay today for around £30 (£60 for the SMS version). I know because I just did. The SMS above shows that last Sunday the suspect (me) was stuck in slow-moving traffic while proceeding in a northerly direction on the A26 en route to a cinema in Tunbridge Wells.

Now, like it or not, tracking devices are set to get cheaper and cheaper and smaller and smaller until they are practically invisible and almost free (already the cost to a manufacturer of adding GPS functionality to a mobile phone is under £1). And so by the time the establishment starts debating the morality of these things, the criminal classes will already be equipped with them. Fancy nicking that motor? Just attach a tracking device to it and wait for it to be left unattended. Fancy that girl? Ditto.

Yet the coming privacy debate will be all the more heated because of the difficulty of weighing up costs and benefits. The same ‘stalking’ technology which has just aroused your horror is extremely useful to anyone with young children and a godsend to someone with a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia. On a more prosaic level, I would like my laptop and car to come pre-installed with the system in case anyone steals them — or I forget where I parked.

What Nicholas Negroponte once called the ‘snail trail’ of data we constantly generate as a by-product of living in the digital age will continue to divide public opinion in years to come. And the issue is not confined to deliberate ‘stalker’ technologies. Many instances of privacy loss arise almost by accident. Until recently it was a simple matter to register a spouse’s Oyster card online and then use the website to track their every move on London Transport. A police car-crime specialist recently told me he almost never uses pay-and-display car parks, as the sticker in your windscreen advertises to thieves how long you’ll be gone. In 25 years of driving, this had never occurred to me.

Written byRory Sutherland

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK. He writes The Spectator's Wiki Man column.

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