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GPS surveillance

Last Updated December 28, 2006

GPS technology isn't just for geo-caching treasure hunters and tracking wildlife anymore.

In fact, some of the things the Global Positioning System is being used for in Canada may surprise you — and make you nervous.

Gary Miles teaches future private investigators how to use GPS to track people.

Miles is a retired private investigator (PI), former Algonquin College Instructor and co-founder of a new PI training centre in Ottawa called Hawk Investigative Institute. He notes how quickly the technology has changed in a short time.

"We used to sit and do surveillance, but it's just not done anymore," he said.

Instead, Miles described how nowadays investigators place GPS receivers into "purses, knapsacks, gym bags, golf bags, and of course, into vehicles," in order to track the person in question.

He says many cases involve one spouse wanting to know what the other one is doing when they aren't together.

Miles describes one situation in which a woman who had sought a PI's services was given a GPS beacon to place in her husband's golf bag.

The investigator was able to later demonstrate with the GPS tracking log that the golf bag had never left her husband's parked vehicle during the time he had said he was golfing.

How it works

GPS is a network of more than two dozen satellites that orbit the earth and transmit precisely timed signals down to GPS receivers.

Each receiver contains a tiny computer that uses the signals of three or four satellites to determine its location (latitude, longitude and altitude) using a process similar to triangulation.

Receivers can be programmed to calculate the speed and direction of travel as well. The data can be stored in the receiver for download onto a computer later.

For situations where remote access to the information is needed, some receivers can transmit it in real-time using cellular networks or satellite internet connections.

Devices cheaper, smaller

Miles said both the price and the size of GPS units have decreased.

The size of a remote receiver is now comparable to a small cellphone with an antenna less than 7.5 centimetres long, and the cost is as little as $350.

The size of a remote receiver is now comparable to a small cellphone with an antenna less than 7.5 centimetres long, and the cost is as little as $350. The battery in these gadgets typically lasts about a month, and there is no limit to the range because satellites send out signals blanketing the globe.

However, Miles notes the signal can be sometimes be blocked by things like overpasses or if the receiver is carried into a building.

Who else is using GPS?

Beyond snooping by spouses, GPS is being used in a lot of other ways. Parents can now place a beacon inside a vehicle and easily tell if their teenagers are where they say they are when they are out for the night.

And over the past three years, more than 120 visually impaired Canadians have been monitoring their location and getting around more easily with 'talking" GPS units. Law enforcement agencies in particular have been finding GPS units very handy.

In May 2006, Nova Scotia became the first province to use satellite-tracking technology to follow offenders under house arrest. On any given day in the province, convicts under house arrest total about 425.

Brian MacDougall, the electronic supervision co-ordinator for Nova Scotia's Department of Justice, said: "It's really holding offenders accountable."

MacDougall added that the number of offenders tracked since May has fluctuated, but will reach 25 by the end of 2006.

In addition to ensuring subjects stay under house arrest, the system can be set up with timed "inclusion zones" that track offenders movements to ensure they attend mandatory appointments related to addictions or employment.

Officials can also immediately detect "exclusion zone" violations, which occur if an offender should enter a specifically prohibited area.

Nabbing thieves with 'bait cars'

GPS has been used in several major Canadian cities to catch thieves who have stolen rented vehicles or "bait cars" deliberately placed in targeted areas. In 2007, Nova Scotia will join provinces such as Manitoba and British Columbia in trying out bait cars.

'The "threat" of a bait car program, no matter the results, has proven effective in many jurisdictions — especially when it's well advertised.'

- Det. Sgt. Kevin Kavitch of the Winnipeg Police Service

Det. Sgt. Kevin Kavitch of the Winnipeg Police Service would not provide specifics about how many thieves the bait car program has nabbed, but said that for a bait car program to be effective in any particular city, there must be a significant commitment to resources for the project.

"The 'threat' of a bait car program, no matter the results, has proven effective in many jurisdictions — especially when it's well advertised."

Curbs bike thefts on Toronto, Vancouver campuses

The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are using GPS to cut down on campus bicycle theft.

Once a "bait bike" sporting a hidden GPS marker is stolen, police track its location with the hopes that it will lead them to catch thieves red-handed.

Bait bike program co-ordinator Special Constable Peter Franchi notes that more than 100 bikes are stolen from the Toronto campus each academic year, a fact which discourages people from reaping the fitness and environmental benefits biking provides, and hits cash-strapped students hard.

Since the university began a pilot Bike Bait program on Sept. 29, a number of charges have been laid — including four arrests in a single day.

"We have seen a dramatic decrease in the number of bike thefts since the program's inception," Franchi said.

Watching in the workplace

GPS-based technology has also been added to other types of employee surveillance already being used in Canadian workplaces — keystroke, e-mail and phone call monitoring, along with video cameras and tracking with identification cards, just to name a few.

Employees carrying company phones with a GPS option can be tracked, too, as long as the phone is turned on. In addition, GPS is being used to monitor employee activity through receivers placed in company equipment and vehicles.

More and more businesses with decentralized workforces in areas such as building contractors, facility management, towing, telecom services and waste management are turning to wireless location-based fleet management services.

This is a field also known as telematics, which can include things beyond mere location data, such as providing information on when vehicle doors are open, the temperature inside a refrigerated truck or a record of how long a given engine idles.

"Growth [of our company] is about 40 per cent per month," said David Katz, the president of the Victoria-based Nero Global Tracking.

Companies track vehicles, equipment, hours

Knowing the location of company vehicles and equipment — often a business's largest investment — provides important benefits, such as being able to demonstrate service completion to customers and streamline operations.

For instance, GPS tracking allows cab, delivery, waste disposal and road maintenance companies and emergency services to more effectively direct employees to the next task or help them avoid traffic, automate payroll based on hours worked, and optimize driver training.

Rental car businesses are using GPS to catch speeding customers to charge them extra for the additional wear and tear, or for crossing an agreed-on boundary such as a national border.

It all comes down to the fact that as tracking technology gets better and cheaper, it's playing a bigger role in our work and personal lives.

It is hard to predict how GPS and other tracking technologies will be used in the future, but one thing is for certain: The more you know about the technology, the more you are able to understand how it affects your life.

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