Sunday, April 5, 2009

Tracking devices easily available here

Tracking devices easily available here
Sun, Apr 05, 2009
The Straits Times

FOR as little as $120, anyone can buy a device or software to track and monitor where their child, elderly parent or employee is - for whatever reason.

The easy availability of such gadgets, including here in Singapore, is raising concerns of personal privacy.

In recent months, many new gadgets, software and services that use satellite tracking or cellphone signals to track individuals have been launched worldwide to mass markets.

In Singapore, gadgets can be bought in information technology equipment stores such as those in the Bugis and Bencoolen areas, or from online stores and auction sites. No checks are done online.

Though covert surveillance is illegal here, and sellers often require buyers to declare that they own the phones or vehicles on which they intend to install the devices, checks are perfunctory, and anyone can lie on the declaration form.

The software is easily installed: Often, a single click will do the trick.

Tracking systems traditionally have more utilitarian functions - for example, logistics companies use them to keep tabs on their vehicle fleets - but as devices get smaller and cheaper, anyone with a mind to it can easily turn them to their own purposes.

In Singapore, there has been a 'steady' stream of buyers for software to track a user's location, said one company which did not want to be identified.

Mr Dennis Lee, managing director of private investigator Covert Acquisition, gets a request at least once a week from spouses or businessmen to sweep their vehicles, computers or cellphones for bugs or surveillance software. Very often - he puts it at 20 per cent of the time - he finds they are being tracked. What is more, many of the spouses who approach him to keep watch on straying partners have already tried surveillance software themselves before turning to him.

Singaporeans The Straits Times spoke to are spooked by the fact that they could be tracked without their knowledge.

An executive said she once caught her then boyfriend trying to install a tracking program on her phone. 'He could have just asked me where I went. I don't like being spied on,' said the 28-year-old, who did not want to be named.

Elsewhere, the proliferation of such tracking devices is also drawing boos.

Just this week, The Guardian newspaper reported that the European Union had backed a proposal to put a tracking device in every car in Europe, so vehicles could 'talk' to one another and improve road safety. But this has raised the hackles of privacy campaigners there who say such a system would amount to total surveillance of what happens on Europe's roads.

Lawyer Looi Teck Kheong, a partner at Edmond Pereira and Partners who has published articles on technology and the law, said people here may now be 'desensitised' to the invasion of privacy due to Singapore's global, connected nature.

'Social norms have changed, and people have become more open,' he said, adding that people were putting to-the-minute updates of their locations or activities on social networks anyway.

To use another example, the number of people buying Global Positioning System devices for their cars has jumped, despite the fact that in order for such gadgets to tell a driver when to turn left, the system first needs to know where he is - in other words, he is being tracked.

In Singapore, tracking systems have been installed in taxi fleets to give them real-time road information as well as for assigning cab bookings.

They are also in some delivery truck fleets to track goods, as well as used to trace infectious patients and the people in touch with them in the hospital compound.

Some parents find it useful

TRACKING devices have their uses. Design and technology instructor Patrick Gaw, 57, has been using tracking software on cellphones for a few years to locate his son Joseph, 25, who is developmentally impaired.

Mr Gaw bought a set of location software for about $120 from local mapping company Agis. Joseph carries two cellphones - one loaded with the tracking software which is always turned on, and one for making calls.

Before he got the software, Mr Gaw would sometimes drive around Singapore looking for his lost son, who often could not describe where he was. 'Now, at least I can pinpoint within a 200m radius where he is,' the father of two said.

SingTel has also had 'thousands of sign-ups' over the last few months for its Locator service, launched late last year. They are mainly parents of young children, or those keeping track of elderly parents. The telco can find out a phone's location, based on which base station the phone transmits signals to.

Private tutor Jasper Ong, 24, who is guardian to four Myanmar students aged around 14, initially put three of them on the tracking plan to make sure they went to school. Now it acts as a 'safety net' as well, in case they get lost and cannot recognise roads or landmarks.

Agis' chief executive Goh Pong Chai said the firm's software for cellphones to track users' locations is popular among parents as 'a child is a parent's most precious possession'. It is launching a cellphone program this month at US$4.90 (S$7.45), which will trigger off a text message alert if the person being monitored strays from his current defined zone.

This story was first published in The Straits Times.

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