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The Ethics of GPS Tracking in Cell Phones

written by: KateG•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/31/2009

Tracking people with their cell phones can be great, or horrifying, depending on the situation. In this article, we'll discuss possible ethics violations of using cell phone GPS tracking.

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    GPS tracking in cell phones – to some it sounds like the first steps to Big Brother ala 1984. For others, it sounds like an invaluable tool for parents and emergency service personnel. Which is it in real life? Well, it can be either, or both. That is why an examination of the ethics involved in mobile phone GPS tracking is critical. Only with clear understanding of these ethics can we, as a society, move forward and make the big decisions. First we will take an abstract look at relevant ethical factors. Then we will get down to real life situations and the ethics of pragmatism.

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    The Ethical Factors

    Philosophers and others who make a living out of answering the tough questions might consider dozens or even hundreds of factors before reaching a decision. The average person doesn’t have that kind of time. That is why we will be breaking down those factors into a few simple categories.

    Who is tracking?

    In this specific case, are we talking about a parent keeping track of their 7 year old, or a government tracking the movements of peaceful political dissidents? Not all "who’s" are equal.

    Why is the tracking being done?

    Tracking a group that could potentially pose a real threat, say parolees, is different then tracking someone who has done no wrong. Does the watcher have a truly noble reason or a need to watch movements?

    Is the person being watched aware, and can they opt out?

    This is an important two parter. If a person is being monitored they have the right to know this. The right to opt out will vary by user situation. Parolee’s are aware, but probably should not be allowed to opt out. People who just bought a shiny new cell phone for their kids should be both aware and able to opt out.

    Now that we have an idea of the major factors, let’s take a look at some real life situations.

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    E 911

    In the USA, and in some other nations, GPS tagging is mandatory in all cell phones. It only activates for emergency dispatch. Is this use ethical? Let’s take a look at the factors.

    Who is watching: Emergency services personnel.

    Why they are watching: To get accurate, real time information to ambulance and fire crews. This will allow them to respond to life threatening situations quicker.

    Aware: Yes, this feature is stated in every phones user manual.

    Opt out: No.

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    Parents and Children

    In an age where parents are finding it harder to keep a physical eye on their children, more parents are choosing a digital eye instead. They use the built-in phone chips to have information on locations sent to a website, which is only accessed with a password. Is this ethical?

    Who is watching: Parents.

    Why they are watching: To keep track of their children, who they are legally responsible for.

    Aware: Possibly.

    Opt out: No.

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    The General Population

    Tracking of everyone with a phone is possible, the question is should it be done?

    Who is watching: Unknown – could be the government, or just your cell phone company.

    Why they are watching: Possible reasons for watching include

    • To track the population.
    • To get market research data on where customers use phone services.

    Aware: Possibly, but most likely not.

    Opt out: Possibly.

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    The Final Question

    You may have noticed that we did not answer the ethics of each question. That is because ethics are a personal decision. Before you come to any final decision you should think about one over reaching question: Do the ends justify the means?