Will GPS Replace RFID as the Privacy Bogeyman?

GPS devices, which are more effective than RFID for tracking individuals, are becoming much cheaper—but so far, privacy advocates have not raised an alarm.
Published: April 26, 2009

Mark Roberti

There was an interesting article in The New York Times the other day regarding a new GPS device known as the Zoombak (see Zoombak Tracks Your Dog, Your Car, Even Your Children).

The transmitter measures 2.9 inches by 1.7 inches by 0.8 inch, weighs 2.5 ounces and is ruggedly built, with a waterproof cover for the charging jack. “The company suggests that you can install its locator on things like your car (in case it’s stolen), your pet’s collar, your child’s backpack, your older relative’s glove compartment, your luggage or the lawn equipment that you lend to your lowlife neighbor,” the article states.

You can visit Zoombak.com and click Find Now to see where the transmitter is at any particular moment. The location, accurate to within a few yards, is displayed on a Microsoft Earth map.

The privacy implications of this device, which costs $100, plus a $15-per-month service fee, are obvious. As the Times puts it, “The company daintily avoids mentioning the screamingly obvious, and much more controversial, uses for the Zoombak: secretly tracking the movements of your spouse, children or employees.”

To date, privacy advocates have said little about the GPS transmitter in your phone, which is far more useful for tracking people than RFID. Now, we have a personalized spying tool for $100—and yet, so far, I haven’t read any articles raising an alarm about how the technology can be abused.

Isn’t it funny that Katherine Albrecht’s book Spychips talks about all kinds of scenarios in which RFID could be used to track people, even though it’s a short-range technology and would thus be ineffective for such an application—and here you have a device that anyone can purchase and use to track his ex-wife, former business partner or object of obsession, anywhere in the world…and we hear nary a word?

Mark Roberti is the founder and editor of RFID Journal. If you would like to comment on this article, click on the link below. To read more of Mark’s opinions, visit the RFID Journal Blog or click here.