Global Positioning Systems

Research Paper, Disruption, Frontier Centre

As technological innovation accelerates, astounding new electronic gizmos pop up almost daily. Many of them have radical, and mostly positive, public policy implications.

Not long ago, for example, Northern Telecom developed a method of moving voice and data signals over electric power lines. Along with the burgeoning wireless networks, this breakthrough will end what remains of the traditional telephone monopolies. Competition will mean lower prices.

The farmer can now fertilize his acreage with near-perfect efficiency by linking his sprayer to a satellite imager that reads existing levels of soil fertility. Savings in fertilizer costs pay for the system within a year or two. The environment and the farmer's balance sheet benefit.

Computer hardware and software and the network infrastructure that functions as the world's collective but invisible brain are expanding exponentially as technological advances make them more affordable. The plummeting price of using and moving information not only reduces costs and overheads for businesses and families, but also for public services.

A recent invention will soon revolutionize police services, making them much more effective and less costly. It's called the Global Positioning System.

The GPS started in 1974, when the U.S. Department of Defence began to launch its series of 24 satellites that now form a navigational network called NAVSTAR. Like the Internet, it began primarily as a military project. Other uses developed from the outset, for example guiding ships through iceberg-filled waters.

In the early 1990's the American government decided to expand commercial applications. Civilians can now access the satellite system for free.

Hundreds of companies currently market handheld GPS tracking devices, available from most sporting goods stores for about $200. An extension that turns these units into receivers costs about $300.

How does it work? A Toronto man who installed one in his jeep last year got a phone call late one night last January. A tracking centre in San Antonio, Texas was on the line to tell him his vehicle was no longer in his driveway. The thief had failed to punch in a security code, automatically activating an alarm signal to the GPS. The electronic sleuths simply called the police in Toronto and told them where to nab the culprit.

Ironically, the thief had chosen one of only three vehicles in Canada equipped with GPS at that time. The swift resolution of the crime significantly minimized police involvement. There's no doubt this tracking system will become standard equipment on new cars. When auto theft rates collapse, police departments should shrink correspondingly if there is some competent political leadership. The side benefit: dropping car insurance prices with savings that more than cover the cost of the GPS.

But the crime fighting doesn't stop there. Got a fancy new computer or stereo? Put a GPS sticker on your door and let them try to steal it. Comes the day when most prudent owners of high-ticket items have protected their property, successful theft will become close to impossible. Fewer thieves require fewer prison cells.

The GPS can be used to protect more than property. Alzheimer's sufferers, young children, even pets can be swiftly tracked when lost.

But are there downsides to this technology on the frontier of public policy? You bet. Devices intended to apprehend the guilty can also be used to track the innocent. A government's ability to spy on its own citizens will become much easier. Would you want anyone to know where you are when it's none of their business? Our legislators may need to look at stronger privacy legislation to shield people from "Big Brother" style abuses of the GPS by public and private busybodies.