Many people seem appalled by the idea that miniaturized tracking devices would be used to track humans on a regular basis. What we do not realize is that most humans, at least in the developed world and increasingly also in the developing world, already carry such devices voluntarily. They are called cell-phones.
In the movies, hunted heroes always make hasted phone calls in order not to be traced. While this makes a good dramatic effect, in reality, nowadays phone companies can trace the source of a call, whether made from a cell phone or a landline phone, instantaneously. Worse, cell phone operators are able to track down the exact location of each cell phone with extreme accuracy. This is simply based on the signal level and direction from which the phone’s transmissions are being received by various cell towers. Naturally, it works even for GPS-less phones since it does not rely on GPS information; in fact. even when the phone is turned off (as long as the battery is kept inside) it can be traced.
This ability has already been used by the police for solving crimes. There are countries, including Israel, in which the police can request to track down a person’s location at a given historic or present moment, as well as obtain the list of people who were located at a certain place at a certain time. Whenever a person is suspected to have committed a crime, it can be verified whether that person’s cell-phone was located in the area at the time during which the crime took place. Similarly, when the police suspects that a series of crimes is related, they can look at the intersection of people who were present in the vicinity of all corresponding crime scenes at the respective times. The courts have even recognized this as very strong evidence in indicting accused criminals. Unfortunately, I believe that the sophisticated crooks have taken note, and nowadays leave their cell-phones at home when planning to commit a crime. So what we are left with is an open license for the police to spy on people’s location. The only thing preventing the police, at least in Israel, from over abusing this system is the hefty sum of money they need to pay the cell-phone operators each time they request such information. Of course, malware could also turn the phones’ speaker and camera into a complete spying device against its owner.
The inverse of the above tracking capability, known as triangulation (or multilateration), enables a phone to locate its own position based on the cell towers surrounding it. Hence, contemporary positioning systems in cell phones combine GPS readings with cell tower multilateration to obtain highly precise positioning capabilities even in places where pure GPS devices fail to do so.
It is comforting to know that these spying devices, known as mobile phones, can at least help us beat the system here and there. For example, the Israeli government has recently decided to invest hundreds of millions of Shekels in deploying hundreds of stationary high-tech speeding cameras. Each of these devices may generate hundreds of traffic fines a day, which are expected to translate into a significant payback to the government. Of course, the location of these cameras has leaked out (not that in the days of Web 2.0 they wouldn’t have been discovered quickly by a collaborative effort) and all GPS operators were fast to offer updated maps in which the locations of these cameras are marked – this is to save the hustle of entering them manually… Given the ubiquity of GPS devices in cars and cell-phones, the latter has rendered these high-tech cameras useless even before being put into official operational mode. Mind you, each of these cameras cost the Israeli tax payer about 1M Shekels a piece – a considerable price for a useless pole.
Trying to think what the government’s next move could be, one can imagine a situation in which data from our cell-phone operator would be used to generate automatic speeding tickets. After all, they have the data of where we are at any moment, and there is already running software that calculates the speed by which each one of us has moved at any given interval of time. The only thing required is making a couple of small adjustments to the law. The first is to force cell-phone operators to provide this data to the police. The operators might initially object, but if they were offered a revenue-share model for the fines generated by the system, I am sure they would become eager supporters of this plan. The second is to place the default legal responsibility for speeding with each person who has a driving license and is riding in a speeding car. This has sort of a precedent in the Israeli law, for example, by the fact that the owner of a car is the default liable for it in case of speeding – i.e., if a car is caught speeding by a camera, the owner is initially charged, and it becomes his/her responsibility to point to the real driver at the time of speeding if s/he claims it was not him/her.
Implemented naively, this could generate a large number of redundant fines, as each car may be carrying more than one passenger. Moreover, in a bus there could be dozens of riders who have no way of knowing at which speed the driver is driving. These could be eliminated by noticing that whenever multiple people are in the same car or bus, they are moving together for a relatively long duration of time. This way, bus riders can be spared from being fined and in the case of a car with multiple riders, one could be picked based on some heuristics, statistics and machine learning of who is most likely to be the driver or owner of the car, breaking ties with random choosing. As these tracking capabilities improve, it may be possible to accurately identify the driver. Also, the fined rider can be limited to holders of a driving license. So while the system might not be perfect, it could be engineered to work reasonably well.
One might claim that such an intrusion to privacy will never be tolerated. However, given the way society gradually gives up its privacy rights, I am afraid that this is not the case. I am always surprised by the ease in which people are willing to let go of their privacy rights, and the statement that “if I am an honest person, and have nothing to hide, then I should not be concerned with my privacy”. My only hope in preventing the above Orwellian scenario is that because these ideas are already known and published, at least in this posting, no one will be able to obtain a patent on them, and hence will not get the funding to realize this…