The first thing to know: Jerome Dobson is not joking.
The University of Kansas research professor, a respected leader
in the field of geographic information technologies, thinks a
terrible and unrealized threat looms about the globe.
This new threat, Dobson says, is "geoslavery" -- a form of
technological human control that could make "George Orwell's `Big
Brother' nightmare...look amateurish."
His vision would use the same manner of electronic devices some
parents use to keep track of their children and police use to
restrict the movement of criminals. He's talking about pimps
electronically monitoring their prostitutes. He's talking about
overlords electronically punishing errant workers.
He's talking about the possibility of people hooked to, tracked
by, and potentially shocked or burned using inexpensive electronic
bracelets, manacles or implants under the eyes of global positioning
Weird? Perhaps. But it is this scenario that Dobson is scheduled
to present this afternoon in New Orleans at the annual meeting of
the American Association of Geographers.
What gives Dobson's speech heft is his background. Before going
to KU less than two years ago, Dobson worked for 26 years at
Tennessee's Oak Ridge National Laboratory creating, for the
government, the maps used in global tracking. He is the president of
the American Geographical Society. And he is not alone in his
In the most recent issue of IEEE, the journal published by
the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, a paper
titled "Geoslavery" is co-written by Dobson and Peter F. Fisher,
British editor of the International Journal of Geographical
"Human tracking systems, currently sold commercially without
restrictions, already empower those who would be masters, and
safeguards have not yet evolved to protect those destined to be
slaves," they wrote.
"I've spoken about this at academic conferences," Dobson said by
phone from New Orleans. "I find that the first reaction people have
is, maybe, disbelief. But if I talk for two minutes, suddenly they
begin to turn somber and say, `This is the scariest thing I have
ever seen.' "
Even those experts who view Dobson's vision as exaggerated
concede that his notions are within the realm of reality.
"Technically, it is possible," said Glen Gibbons, editor of
GPS World and Geospatial Solutions, Oregon-based trade
magazines. "Yes, people with ill intent could turn these
technologies to evil purposes. But it is also a matter of how much
sociopathology you think you have in a culture."
To Dobson, the point is to address the threat before it is too
Numerous companies produce devices that, using satellites, are
able to locate and track people anywhere on the planet:
• Advanced Tracking Technologies
Inc. of Houston sells TravelEyes. Placed in a vehicle, the device
records a driver's location every moment of the day. It records how
long the driver has stopped, the path a vehicle has taken, the speed
traveled. With a laptop computer, employers can keep track of their
drivers' every move.
• Digital Angel Corp. of St. Paul,
Minn., makes implanted chips to keep track of livestock or pets. It
also sells a Personal Safety and Location System. The device looks
like a digital wristwatch. When the wearer -- say an elderly person
with Alzheimer's -- wanders, the device not only pinpoints the
person's location, but also sounds an alarm. The devices have
emergency buttons that call 911 if a person has fallen or has a
drastic change in temperature.
• In Redwood Shores, Calif., a
company called Whereify Wireless Inc. sells its GPS Kids Locator for
$400. The device, which also looks like a watch, can be locked to a
child's wrist. Parents can log on to an Internet site to track their
child's movements on a map every couple of minutes for 24 hours.
Dobson said that in creating these products, none of the
companies was thinking of anything nefarious. He absolutely knows
the good they do.
Like all the electronic monitoring devices, Whereify comes with
911 alert and locator features that can be triggered in case of an
emergency. It even can be triggered automatically if someone tries
to remove the device from a child's wrist.
"The primary benefit of our product is not to track a child,"
said Ellen Roth, vice president of marketing of Whereify (pronounced
like "verify"). "It is to give a parent peace of mind. It's for a
parent to know their child is OK and to empower a child in case of
Dobson worries that where there is an evil will, there is an evil
way. He hopes that his fearful vision will create debate and perhaps
legislation or safeguards around the technology that will keep it
from being misused.
Already the technologies are sparking debates regarding privacy.
Add a transponder to a locked device, Dobson says, and the punitive
possibilities are endless.
"What we are suggesting," Dobson said, "is that we are only one
technological step from placing a transponder in there that burns or
stings a person if they step off a prescribed path by a meter. Or if
they stay too long in one place. Or cross the path of another person
they are prohibited from seeing or if they congregate with other
"I can confine you to a place. You can't go there. Or you must go
there. And I can control it."
In the hands of repressive governmental regimes, the devices
could be devastating, Dobson said, just as they could be in people's
"Wives can keep track of husbands. And vice versa," he said. "A
husband might say, `I don't like your friend. I'm not going to let
you go to her house anymore, and that might be prohibited."
Even if the devices are not punitive, Dobson said, they easily
allow one person to know the exact movements of another. That, in
itself, can could lead to terrible consequences.
"Society will have to draw the line. And it is difficult to say
where that line is. Suppose you're talking about a parent who has
Alzheimer's and you want to monitor them. Or you have a child with a
mental deficiency and you want to make sure he or she is safe.
"We may avoid the most serious abuses of this technology in the
U.S. because we have a tradition of personal freedom. But it will
differ by country and by culture. Think of the countries where they
already have ethnic cleansing.
"The phrase I like to use to bring this home is to ask, `How long
would Anne Frank's diary be if she were wearing one of these nifty