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Digital Angel: GPS Technology for the Greater Good

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 12/31/2009

Digital Angel is one of the more (in)famous companies on the tracking arena, selling a variety of GPS and RFID tracking devices to save lives. While they offer many ingenious uses of the technology for the benefit of society, many have also been alarmed by potential privacy invasions.

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    Digital Angel Mission

    GPS and RFID products are utilized around the world to save lives, ensure the safety of our food supply, reunite loved ones and improve the quality of life. We are a leading developer of technologies that enable the rapid and accurate identification, location tracking, and condition monitoring of what is important to people."

    This goal, as stated on the Digital Angel website, is simple enough: they want to do good in the world. Not every companies profess this to be their driving force, and it's certainly admirable.

    Digital Angel is a subsidiary company of Applied Digital Solutions, and many of their innovations are developed under subsidiaries of their own.

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    Protecting Animals: Livstock, Pets & Wildlife

    Digital Angels offers implantable RFID chips for companion pets, which allows owners to find them in case they are lost. While you can't track the location of your pet at each and every minute, the chip can be scanned at a shelter or veterinary clinic for data on the owner so that the pet can be returned.

    Another project is providing both tracking and identification information to livestock. This is done as a part of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS) project initiated by the USDA, which hopes that by both tracking the movement of animals and information such as lineage and ownership, they can more quickly eradicate disease such as Mad Cow. While this has not been made mandatory in the US, and is mandatory in only a few other countries, such devices are increasingly popular amongst agricultural bodies.

    Use of RFID and GPS devices is not just limited to domesticated creatures. Digital Angel has also developed units for tracking wild animals of various sorts. For instance, they work in tagging salmon and other fish to monitor their movement in streams and dams, one contract being by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Chances are pretty good that when you see an animal being RFID tagged in the Discovery channel documentary, it's with a Digital Angel technology.

    For more on these projects, check out the Digital Angel page on animal tracking.

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    Search & Rescue

    Digital Angel also has a number of products to facilitate search and rescue operations, either military or civilian, under SARBE and McMurdo subsidiaries respectively. They create a number of GPS and RFID emergency beacons which may be attached either to individuals or the crafts that carry them. These have saved a number of lives over the years- true digital angels.

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    Tracking People

    Here's where the controversy begins. For many people, either RFID or GPS tracking of individuals constitutes a major privacy violation, even if intended for the good of the wearer.

    Digital Angel frequently works with the government on projects to track criminals, particularly sex offenders, with their GPS technology. This has raised a lot of red flags with privacy activists, who argue that once criminals have served their prison sentence, the government has no right to continue surveillance, and questions the efficacy of such measures in the first place.

    Their single most notorious product is an implanted RFID chip under the skin, which can contain a variety of critical information of the user, including medical allergies, social security number, current location, and others. This could be useful for any number of situations, from medical emergencies to even missing person cases. While at current there is absolutely no health risk, and full consent must be given in order to have these implanted, many privacy activists warn of a potentially slippery slope where people may one day be required to have such information that can be scanned from afar by third parties without their consent. As a result of this controversy, including multiple lawsuits—including subsequent lawsuits filed by stockholders in the company—Digital Angel has deemphasized its role in this product, and have instead focused on other products.

    Slightly less alarming, but every bit as useful, is a similar packaged deal that doesn't go under the skin, but in a wristwatch, this one designed more for alerting emergency services when, say, a heart attack is happening or other medical problems. While many of the privacy concerns are still there, particularly with who would have access to this data and the amount of consent required to wear such a bracelet, they haven't quite caught on yet.

    While the future of people tracking products are very much in question, many of their other products have received popular mainstream acceptance—and are quite profitable. Their innovations in GPS and RFID tracking technology will likely result in quite a few more products useful to society in the future, so keep a keen eye on this company!

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