The GPS Gridlock

Beyond being a useful travel tool, GPS technology has the potential to optimise traffic and revolutionise road operations. Despite the advantages, the road ahead for widespread GPS adoption in countries such as the US is a rough one, and, as Frances Cook finds out, littered with serious issues over personal privacy and information control.


America's population of 300m is rapidly increasing, and predicted to be nearly 400m in 2050.

As a result there is more pressure on roads than ever before. The need to make US road systems more efficient, well maintained, less congested and less hazardous has never been greater. GPS technology has the potential to optimise traffic and road operations and relieve the pressures faced by US roadways. However, privacy issues relating to the use of GPS technologies and the fear of creating a 'Big Brother' society are holding back the full potential that GPS technology has to offer.

Private lives

The question of how GPS should be used in terms of law enforcement is considered by many industry experts and commentators as an "evolving" issue. There are several major issues at stake here. One is whether GPS technology should be used to assist with law enforcement, and, if so, then should its use be permitted only through pre-approval from a court? Another is whether data collected through use of GPS technology could be potentially used against a citizen in an unrelated law enforcement issue at some point in the future.

"The greatest barrier to deployment of this type of technology is the fear of a loss of privacy," explains David Cottingham, member of the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society. "If my motor insurance company becomes aware that I visited a hospital recently, will they contact my life insurer to advise them that I may present a greater risk or is the state entitled to use the logs from the device in my car to charge speeding fines?"

Recent headlines in the US regarding better regulation of internet privacy shows that privacy issues are at the forefront of the public's and the government's agenda.

"The greatest barrier to deployment of this type of technology is the fear of a loss of privacy."

"There is a tidal wave of concern in US that internet sites are collecting tremendous volumes of private information and there is not enough effective regulation," explains Daniel Prywes, partner at Bryan Cave, a leading business and litigation firm.

With GPS technology offering the potential to increase revenue for our roads, decrease accidents and ease congestion, the capability of this technology to track, trace and record private information means that the enforcement of privacy issues could be the biggest obstacle to industry harnessing it's full potential.

However, the question of how data collected could potentially be used remains disputed. "People should have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their public movements," says Cogdell & Ardoin's Jimmy Ardoin.

What about the Fourth Amendment?

In August 2010, the US vs Maynard case was a step in the right direction for GPS use in law enforcement. The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia decided that the Fourth Amendment (the part of the US Constitution's Bill of Rights that guards against unreasonable searches and seizures) requires the government to obtain a warrant when it uses GPS to monitor someone's movements for an extended period of time.

In this case, Police had planted a GPS device on a vehicle to track its position over the course of one month without securing a search warrant first. The court ruled that evidence gained, through the use of a GPS tracking system, could not be taken into account because a warrant had not been given by the court. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued that the Fourth Amendment requires the government to obtain a warrant when it uses a GPS tracking device to monitor someone's movements for an extended period of time - and the court agreed.

"The question of how data collected could potentially be used remains disputed."

"This ACLU case has been the strongest federal court decision opposing the use of GPS in that fashion," says Prywes, who represented the ACLU in the Maynard case. "There are some federal courts of appeals that have allowed police to use GPS without getting a warrant from a judge, so it's quite possible that this issue will end up being heard by the United States Supreme Court, which has the last word."

This is why the use of GPS for law enforcement is such an "evolving" issue.

Despite the ruling of the Maynard case, Prywes reveals that the court has been asked by government to reconsider its decision, a process that could take another few months to resolve. If the Supreme Court decides to consider the case, it could take another year to reach a final decision. Meanwhile, as GPS technologies increasingly saturate daily lives (for example, around 30% of cell phones now contain GPS technology) the potential invasion of privacy is greater than ever before.

Unlocking the grid

ITS America believes that GPS technology has the potential to provide the revenue that is so desperately needed to maintain America's roads since the Highway Trust Fund stopped. "The US population is continuing to grow significantly, primarily through immigration, and the number of people driving on road is increasing at a faster rate than the population growth, so the need for transportation is continuous," says Rod MacKenzie, ITS America chief technology officer.

"We can't build enough new roads to keep up with the increase in demand, so the only way we're going to be able to prevent the whole system coming to a grinding halt is to make more efficient use of the roads we've got to today - and we believe GPS technologies are a key part of doing that," says MacKenzie.

"ITS America feels similarly about the influence of the younger generation's attitude towards privacy"

One method being investigated is measuring vehicle miles per minute. "In order for that to be used you need a technology to be able to measure it, and that's where GPS comes in, but there are some significant challenges to get there," says MacKenzie.

In terms of road-user law enforcement, GPS technology is not widely used. However, one area where it has been introduced is via pay as you drive (PAYD) car insurance. "The idea behind using location for insurance purposes is simple: the risk of being involved in an accident changes markedly depending on which road is being driven on, at what time of day, and at what speed," says David Cottingham, member of the IEEE Vehicular Technology Society. Norwich Union pioneered the use of PAYD insurance, but withdrew the product in 2008.

"The reasons cited were a lack of take-up, most probably because of the perceived 'Big Brother' effect, and because of the costs of equipping vehicles with the technology," explains Cottingham. "In the US, Progressive continues to market PAYD policies, but does not collect location data."

Generational influence?

The 'evolving' privacy issues surrounding GPS - whether for law enforcement or simply to make our roads smarter - means that how GPS technology will affect our roadways in the future is somewhat uncertain.

For Cottingham, the fact that privacy seems to be a lesser issue for the younger generation could mean that GPS will gradually become more present in our daily lives.

"Perhaps it is only a matter of time before these privacy questions seem less important," he says. "In the meantime, adding features such as navigation to the devices used for charging will sweeten the pill, particularly if vehicle manufacturers can be convinced to build them in at the factory."

ITS America feels similarly about the influence of the younger generation's attitude towards privacy, and therefore, on potential GPS use in the future. "The younger generations seem to be less concerned about privacy, and are open about where they are and what they are doing," says MacKenzie. "The technology has enormous potential and it is important we figure out how to use it, which will evolve as we learn how to use it more effectively," he concludes.