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Archive for Monday, January 7, 2002

Professor worried satellite technology could lead to ‘geo-slavery’

January 7, 2002

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George Orwell probably never imagined this when he was writing about Big Brother in the book "1984."

Tyrants someday could use satellites to track oppressed citizens, then send signals to shock them if they didn't obey orders.

It's not such a far-fetched idea, according to Jerry Dobson, a research professor at Kansas University.

"This becomes true control right here, and in fact the person becomes a human robot," Dobson said. "I've referred to this as geo-slavery."

While at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee for 26 years, Dobson helped develop Global Information System technology, which plots satellite information onto maps.

The satellite data is from the Global Positioning System, a network of 27 satellites that use triangulation to determine the location of GPS receivers on earth.

The technology already has many uses. Computers in cars can tell your location and help with directions. Trucking companies can track shipments, which is especially helpful for hazardous waste.

Implant request

While in Tennessee, an entrepreneur approached Dobson, wanting to implant receiver chips in children to monitor their location. Dobson said he flatly denied the request.

But some companies already market GPS receivers to track people. The "Digital Angel" uses a watch-like device to provide the location of whoever is wearing it to an off-site monitor. The device, which sells for $299, can be used to find lost children or pets or to make sure Alzheimer's patients don't wander from where they're supposed to be, according to the company Web site.

Another, Travel Eyes, is a credit card-sized receiver that sells for about $500. The Travel Eyes Web site markets the receiver as a way to track where a car has been, how fast it was driven and where it stopped.

But at least one company selling Travel Eyes markets the device as a way to determine if your spouse is cheating on you.

"Ever wish you had a tool that could prove your suspicions were valid?" says the Web site for Advanced Detection Systems in Shreveport, La. "Next time you sense suspicious activity, make sure Travel Eyes goes along for the ride."

Steve Divine, owner of Advanced Detection Systems, said the company doesn't install Travel Eyes without the permission of the vehicle owner. But a car owned jointly by a husband and wife only needs permission from one owner, he said.

Danger afoot

And someone could buy Travel Eyes and install it themselves.

"If I sell it to somebody, I guess I don't care what they do," he said. I've sold very few of them I didn't install. I have never believed my equipment has been used illegally."

Divine agreed that personal rights need to be considered in the future of GPS. But he said the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks.

"It depends how much do you love your daughter as to where she's going and what she's doing?" Divine said. "I would've loved to have this when I had kids at home."

Dobson said the dangers of GPS technology have yet to appear.

The possibilities for "geo-slavery," or "e-slavery," as Dobson also has called it are many, he said. Though current technology uses bracelet-like receivers, chips could be implanted into slaves in the future.

And transponders could be added to the chips that would give slaves a shock if they didn't follow the master's orders. Masters could restrict slaves to a particular area, limit the amount of time they stayed in certain places or keep them from interacting with other groups of people.

Or Americans bringing sex slaves into the country could monitor them without using armed guards, Dobson said.

'We're not ready'

"What about countries where there's already child slavery? What about countries where there's ethnic cleansing?" he said. "Imagine how long Anne Frank's diary would've been if she'd been wearing one of these things."

Dobson points to the murder of a teenage girl in Turkey as an example of how the technology could be used. The girl was killed for bringing shame to her family for simply viewing a movie without permission.

Other families could track their children in a similar manner, he said.

"Some girls might die because of the inaccuracy of the device," he said, noting that a computer screen showing a recent road trip indicated Dobson drove about 100 feet off the road in some locations because of faulty information.

Dobson said he liked using his GPS device in his car, and said the technology has many benefits. But like developing the atomic bomb, he said, society should prepare for the potential negative consequences, as well.

"We're not ready for it," he said. "The laws haven't adjusted. There has been no public debate to speak of. And it just keeps on creeping in. It's not like this is a pipe dream.

"We're facing the greatest threat to personal freedom we've ever had in the history of the world."
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