Government Tracking of Mobile Devices is a Double-Edged Sword
Insurance Experts' Forum, February 1, 2011
Technology is a wonderful thing in the right hands, but as the past 20 years have shown, it is also a terrible threat when wielded by slimy fingers. As a result, we seem to have a never-ending battle between those who want to advance technologies that track mobile devices (for crime-fighting and anti-terrorist purposes) and others who want to protect their privacy by stopping any such monitoring.
In a recent posting on his website, Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the laws concerning such tracking must be brought up to date. Wyden, in a speech to the Cato Institute Policy Forum recently, said, “It seems clear to me that the explosion of portable electronic devices in our society and their ability to track their owners’ movements is a genuinely new phenomenon, and that this phenomenon raises serious issues for intelligence gathering, law enforcement, and the protection of individual privacy rights. The next question to ask is, are our existing laws adequate for dealing with this situation. I believe it is time to modernize the law in this area.”
Wyden asserted that the law should require government agencies to show probable cause and receive a warrant before acquiring the geolocation information of a person in the United States. He said tracking someone’s movements 24/7 is “a significant intrusion on their privacy” and should not be done by meeting low or nonexistent standards of evidence. Such a law, he added, should apply to acquiring geolocation information both from personal cell phones and GPS units as well as devices covertly installed by the government, such as a GPS unit attached to someone’s car.
The latter item is where insurance ears should be perking up. It’s already standard practice for entities such as rental car companies to install tracking devices on their vehicles to make sure the vehicles are not driven outside of proscribed boundaries, and to recover the vehicle if necessary. In addition, insurers who want to tailor premiums to where and when vehicles are driven would benefit by having such devices installed on insureds’ vehicles.
One also wonders if such a law would take into account the millions who count on geolocation devices as a defense against auto theft and an aid to recovery. If I report my car stolen at 3 a.m., I certainly wouldn’t like the idea of having to wait until someone drags a judge out of bed to authorize the police to turn on their Lojack equipment. By the time that happened, my precious vehicle could be on its way overseas, never to be recognized again.
It will be fascinating to see how this law, if it comes to pass, will affect privacy, not to mention the price of insuring various kinds of vehicles. Someone needs to give this issue a lot of thought and debate before we limit the ability to locate people and vehicles. Unfortunately, those who believe that no one in authority can be trusted will be satisfied with nothing less than total anonymity.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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