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Tracking someone's every move, electronically

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

Tracking someone's every move, electronically

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1992, The Syracuse Newspapers

Japanese companies have developed a revolutionary tracking system that can keep tabs on any individual.

This system, promoted by Japan's Ministry of Posts and Telecommunication, was originally designed to provide directions to pedestrians in Japan's crowded cities. A special radio signal can activate a device worn on the pedestrian to announce the location of such things as hospital entrances and street crossings.

The device is able to "talk" to the pedestrian from a built-in speaker and includes a small display screen that can be used to show text or simple maps. It works by inductive radio signals, which need only a tiny amount of battery power and work inside tunnels and buildings.

The system is fully interactive - that is, it can both receive information from transmitters located in such places as buildings and sidewalks and send information to inductive receivers.

It is this second function that has led to the development of what Japanese researchers call the "man location system." It is still in the primitive stages now, but with government funding behind it, the system is likely to be improved over the next few years.

According to Tadakazu Yamaoka, an official in the Telecommunication Ministry, here's how the location system could work once it has been perfected:

Radio induction zones are set up by the hundreds within urban areas, with each one having a signal-pickup range that can vary from a few yards to a distance about half the length of a football field.

The person who is to be tracked is given an Inductive Radio Information System transmitter, a device small enough to be placed in a pocket or purse. Each transmitter sends out a unique code, identifying both the individual and his or her precise location.

A central office equipped with tracking computers is able to monitor the wearer's movements at all times, as long as the individual remains within the inductive zones. Adding more zones is fairly cheap, so it should not cost much to monitor every location within a large building or even every area in a crime district, for example.

One obvious use for such a tracking system is electronic monitoring of the movements of someone who is on probation or parole, or someone who, for example, has been ordered to stay away from another individual. (One example: an abusive husband who has been ordered to stay away from his wife.)

As such, the Japanese tracking system is much more advanced than the one that has been developed in this country and was implemented in Onondaga County. That system also requires the individual to wear a transmitter, but can only signal that the person has left his or her home.

If the Japanese device can be miniaturized to the size of a coin, it's even conceivable that a surgeon could implant the transmitter into the body of a person considered potentially dangerous. This would allow police to keep track of that individual without the wearer's cooperation.

Because of the way locations within inductive fields can be monitored, authorities could program the central computers to notify them quickly if the wearer left the signal range of one of the fields. The computer record would show the exact location of the person at the point the signal was lost, and police could be sent immediately to that area.

In some ways, this sort of personal tracking system raises serious ethical issues. Tracking devices could be misused by the government to monitor non-criminal behavior, and personal privacy could be violated just as readily under this system as under George Orwell's fictional "Big Brother" state in his novel, "1984."

As the technology improves, even greater issues may need to be raised. A system that uses earth satellites to track the precise location of anyone carrying a transmitter is already in use. If the satellite system can be refined to the point of allowing extremely small transmitters - the size of a credit card, for example, or perhaps even built into a credit card - a global personal location system will surely follow.

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