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Futuristic Look at Police
Use of GPS Technology

There may come a day in the not-too-distant future when police departments issue speeding tickets through the mail using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology rather than flashing their lights in someone's mirror and pulling them over on the side of the road (in some locations this is already a fact, but using photoradar). In all likelihood, when such a ticket arrives, it will be the first time that the law breaker actually realizes that he or she broke the law. The really interesting part of all this is that, in all probability, they probably did break the law.

Today, GPS technology is commonly used to establish the longitude and latitude of people, places and things. It is used by surveyors, U.S. Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. military, civilian groups and a host of others.

At the center of this controversial technology are 24 earth-orbiting satellites that belong to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD). At first, use of the GPS was restricted to only military personnel. Its primary use was to establish the position of fighting troops and war machines--anywhere on the face of the earth, in the water, or in the air.

After the introduction of an enhanced version of GPS, called the Diferential Global Positioning System (DGPS), a committee was assembled to study the possibility of making GPS technology available to civilians. Because of the recommendations of this committee, civilian access to the GPS was finally made possible.

Ordinary citizens are now using GPS to track wild animals; identify and locate civilian aircraft; find lost or stolen vehicles; keep tabs on company cars and trucks (often this includes the speed of the vehicle); determine their own location when hiking; find their way through urban, suburban and rural streets; and study the moanings and groanings inside the crust of the earth. DGPS has improved the accuracy of GPS technology, from a find range of 100 meters to mere millimeters.

GPS: A Two-Edged Sword

GPS technology is like a two-edged sword; on one side you have features and benefits that everyone wants, and on the other you have the potential for abuse and misuse. In this case, law enforcement is faced with the possibility of a new tool that, once automobile makers begin installing GPS units in all the vehicles they make, promises to automate a task that otherwise requires a wealth of manhours and effort, not to mention risk to police officers.

Today's budget-conscious police departments are likely to see GPS technology as a godsend in that it will greatly reduce the number of manhours spent performing highway surveillance. However, our law enforcement friends should use caution in this regard, building reliable safeguards into the system to assure that this technology is not misused by rogue police officers and political figures busy at work on their own personal agendas.

Why is all of this so important? Well, up until recently, it has been necessary to physically follow a suspect to obtain the where, when, who and why of a criminal situation. This kind of information does not come easy nor does it come cheap. It requires many hours of investigation time and a whole lot of effort; and rightly so, because by the time this particular kind of investigation is over, the investigator usually has seen and heard enough to be reasonably sure whether the suspect has or is about to break the law.

By contrast, using GPS technology and other high-tech solutions, which all too often result in fast, speedy investigations, investigators can come to the wrong conclusions--fast. This can lead to mistakes, such as false arrest, or even worse--the wrongful imprisonment or even the death of an innocent person.

Not only that, but, as many law enforcement officers will tell you, there are many times that a car stopped for a routine traffic violation renders a wanted criminal. Obviously, highway surveillance as it exists today is extremely helpful at removing felons from society.

If GPS technology as a surveillance tactic would only be used on criminals, privacy advocates would be more ready to accept it. But, how do you tell the criminals from innocent, honest citizens? Actually, it is not always easy to do that, and in a land that boasts of being a democratic society, people are suppose to be innocent until they are proven guilty.

The bottom line is to institute checks and balances that will prevent the sacrifice of citizen privacy rights. There is little doubt that GPS technology has the potential of saving police departments a lot of time and effort, but it also possesses the potential of abusing the rights of citizens when investigations are only carried out in part. Please remember that technology alone cannot replace good, old- fashioned police work.


Al Colombo
An American

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