Big Brother becomes reality with cellphone technology
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Big Brother becomes reality with cellphone technology

By Jim Finkle
The Orange County Register /July 11, 2004

Stephen Petilli doesn't worry about getting lost, even when he's driving in unfamiliar territory.

He's chief executive officer of Networks in Motion, a startup company in Irvine, Calif., that has turned cellphone handsets into personal navigators. He carries a prototype mobile phone that tells you where you are and how to get where you're going.

So far, these souped-up phones aren't available, but NIM (another name for the company) is already selling less powerful versions of its service.

Its most advanced product, AtlasTrack, works with Global Positioning System satellites and Nextel's wireless network, allowing businesses to monitor employees' whereabouts. It's designed to track messengers, cable-TV installers, construction workers, sales personnel and other workers who are constantly out in the field.

Multiple uses Radio chips in the phones send messages to the home office as often as once a minute, allowing a dispatcher to:

Identify the location of the phone and whether it's stationary or moving.

Pull up maps that show the current location of all employees.

Click on the name of a particular worker to get a map of the route traveled that day, along with specific addresses visited, and even the vehicle's speed at any particular moment.

Get an automatic warning whenever a driver is stuck in traffic or speeding.

Employee-tracking cellphones are an expansion of electronic monitoring conducted by many companies. Techniques include audio and video surveillance, as well as routine screening of e-mail and Web use.

Technology opposed The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer-advocacy group in San Diego, generally opposes use of such technologies, except in cases where employers have good reason to suspect an employee of wrongdoing.

But the use of GPS is a reasonable way for companies to manage mobile work forces, according to Beth Givens, the group's director.

"There are good business reasons for using it. But it must be coupled with a very robust privacy policy," she said.

Companies should clearly communicate those policies to all employees and never use GPS data as the sole basis for documenting negative reports on a worker, she said.

For example, if a GPS system was to alert a dispatcher that a truck driver was regularly speeding, a supervisor should discuss the matter with that employee so that there's an opportunity for the worker to dispute the data.

The company should have clear policies on disciplinary actions made as a result of that information, once it's confirmed to be accurate, Givens said.

The NIM dispatch system monitors drivers but doesn't give them directions. NIM plans to introduce its wireless-navigation systems later this year.

It's only one of several companies developing products that use GPS to help with navigation and tracking.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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