Phone tracking raises privacy fears

No hiding place from the boss Keystone

New technology which can pinpoint the location of mobile telephones could infringe personal privacy, warn civil liberties groups.

This content was published on January 14, 2004 - 13:19

The telecommunications company, Sunrise, is the first in Switzerland to announce plans to offer a commercial phone-tracking service.

Like all new technologies, this one has its positive and negative sides.

Delivery firms and taxi companies believe location tracking, as it is called, could be of great use to their businesses.

Search and rescue services also think the technology could be helpful, for example in finding missing hikers or skiers.

Successful testing

Sunrise tested location-tracking technology just before Christmas by installing it on the telephones of drivers running the “Red Nose” free taxi service, according to the French-language newspaper "Le Matin".

Red Nose drivers take people home who have had one or two drinks too many and know they are not fit to drive.

The trial was a success, according to the newspaper: Red Nose drivers, equipped with GPS phones, were tracked by satellite and could be pinpointed to within three metres of their actual location.

The actual technology, called GeoGeny, was developed by a small Swiss company, the CPR Group. It then uses the Sunrise network to deliver the system.

"We think this could be a very interesting service," said Mathieu Janin, spokesman for Sunrise. "And we are promoting a small local company with good ideas."

Janin told swissinfo Sunrise and the CPR Group hoped to offer the tracking service on a wider basis within the next few weeks or months.

Data protection worries

But civil liberties groups worry that location tracking will be used by bosses to keep an eye on staff.

Permanent electronic monitoring in the workplace is not permitted under Swiss data protection laws, so any company wishing to use location tracking would be expected to seek the permission of its employees first.

But this raises the question of whether employees would feel pressured into agreeing to it, for fear of being penalised if they disagree.

In Britain, for example, civil liberties groups have raised concerns that some companies might make location tracking a condition of employment.

“It is the responsibility of whoever introduces such technology to ensure that it does not infringe personal privacy,” said Kosmas Tsiraktsopoulos, spokesman at the Swiss Federal Data Protection Commission.

“And we think companies need to think very carefully about whether the introduction of tracking would really improve the efficiency of the workforce,” Tsiraktsopoulos told swissinfo.

Sunrise however says anyone equipped with the tracking technology knows that they are being tracked, and can choose whether to switch the device off or not.

"We have a code of conduct which applies to this," Janin said. "There is a 'yes' and a 'no' button for the user to click on anytime."

And Janin says that trials of the technology have met with a very positive response.

"We tested it with the police during the Montreux Jazz Festival," he explained. "And the overwhelming impression was that most users see the tracking service as a means of protection."

Europe-wide interest

There is a great deal of interest in location-tracking technology in other European countries.

In France, several telecommunications companies are considering offering the service.

The technology is already widely available in Britain and is often marketed at parents who want to keep track of their children.

The European Commission has recognised there is a privacy issue and has drafted a directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications. This decrees that a mobile-phone user can be tracked only if he or she explicitly gives consent.

The Federal Data Protection Commission expects to see a similar code of practice for Switzerland, if and when location tracking becomes available.

“At the end of the day,” said Tsiraktopoulos, “We have to think about the relationship of trust which should exist between employer and employee.”

“What happens to that relationship if it is based primarily on technology?”


location tracking

Location tracking uses GPS mobile telephones to pinpoint phone users to within three metres of their actual location.

The European Commission says tracking should only be applied with the express permission of the mobile-phone user.

Sunrise is the first telecommunications company in Switzerland to announce plans for a tracking service.

In France, supporters of the tracking service say it could be very useful for road freight companies and taxi services. In Britain, parents use it to keep tabs on their children.

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