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Posted on Fri, Mar. 07, 2003

KU professor has nightmare vision of global positioning technology

The Kansas City Star

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 satellites.

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 thoughts.

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 Information Science.

"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 late.

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 an emergency."

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 people.

"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 personal lives.

"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 devices?"

To reach Eric Adler, call 816-234-4431 or e-mail him at [email protected].

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