July 13, 2003

We Are Big Brother

Global Positioning Systems and the Wonderful Wide World of Location, Location, Location. From Fast Company:

Fast Company | The Sky's the Limit: ...I am egging on an executive in a GPS conglomerate... trying to get him to tell me how "location awareness" is going to change the world the way that, say, electricity did. He's holding back.... I can tell he's had bigger thoughts. He lets down his guard all at once. "Imagine," he says, "the end of property crime. Everything that has any value and could be stolen -- a car, a laptop, a piece of construction equipment" (not to mention every ship, plane, truck trailer, and toddler) -- "everything like that will know its location and be able to report it. We can go even further: You tell your laptop that it should only find itself at your office or your home. And if it finds itself in a car trunk, it wakes up, notices that it's in the wrong place, calls your cell phone, and says, 'Hi, this is your laptop. I'm at this location on this map you see. Is that okay?' "

Then the executive goes one step further. He starts talking about insurance companies selling you auto insurance based on how you actually use your car, say, a month at a time. They review the GPS information on where you've driven, how far, to what areas of town, and how fast (speeding, eh?) and bill you for the risks that you're taking.... The GPS executive's eyes are sparkling at the prospect of reduced car-insurance rates. I'm thinking, Holy mackerel. The insurance company will have records of everywhere I drive and how fast I drive there. Not even my wife knows that....

Con-Way NOW.... When companies need something big moved quickly, they call an outfit like Con-Way NOW, a unit of transportation giant CNF.... Con-Way NOW... (N 42? 12.964', W 83? 43.983', elevation 914 feet above sea level, 6 satellites reporting, to an accuracy of 18').... The whole operation is built around a simple guarantee: When you call Con-Way NOW and book a shipment, that shipment will arrive at the time promised, whether it's going across the state or across three time zones. In the trucking business, it's called "time-definite delivery." If the shipment is more than two hours late, it's half price. If it's more than four hours late, it's free. GPS makes the whole thing possible. Con-Way NOW knows where every truck is, all the time. Not roughly where every truck is, but where every truck is to within less than one-tenth of a mile. When an order comes in, a dispatcher punches a computer function labeled FIND NEAREST, and a list of trucks comes up, displaying a full array of detailed information on the status of each of them....

If a truck is running more than 15 minutes late, or if a truck strays off route by more than 200 feet, a satellite system provided by Qualcomm notices and sends dispatchers an alert.... "Amy, this is Brenda," says a breathless woman. "I've got a very hot expedited shipment that needs to be in Pennsylvania tomorrow." Brenda rat-a-tat-tats out the details: a 158-pound item on a single skid. Yes, it will fit in a cargo van. "It'll be ready for pickup before 3:30," Brenda says. "It needs to arrive ASAP tomorrow."

Amy's computer reports the distance from Horton, Michigan to Hazleton, Pennsylvania -- 546 miles. That's 12 hours, 8 minutes driving time, according to the computer. Amy puts Brenda on hold and consults a dispatcher, Marissa. Marissa has a cargo van that will be able to pick up in Horton at 3:30 PM. Delivery time? How's 4 AM for ASAP? Total cost for the ride: more than $800.... Before Brenda can call back, Amy has found the Pennsylvania company on the Internet, run a credit check, talked to a man at the company named John, and been told that a 4 AM delivery is a bit too ASAP. "Seven-thirty will be fine," John says. "That's when receiving opens."

Within 15 minutes of Brenda's initial call, everything is done. The driver has received the job and confirmed his acceptance and his pay (roughly $450 for driving all night) -- all messages bounced back and forth off of birds in orbit.... In some ways, though, what's most remarkable about the way that Con-Way NOW operates is its gritty utilitarianism. There is no wall-sized status board showing where all of the trucks are. The computer displays are dense menus of text. And yet, anytime a staffer or a customer wants to know exactly where a truck is, a Con-Way NOW customer-service rep can actually "ping" the truck as if it were a jet or a submarine. The truck reports back time, date, map location, latitude and longitude, speed, direction, and, if desired, a whole raft of other information: the driver's name, the load being hauled, the ultimate destination, the distance out, the estimated time of arrival.

GPS -- location -- is really just the occasion for a link between truck and company that is constantly being exploited in ways that are unexpected. Truck drivers, all independents who have exclusive contracts to drive for Con-Way NOW, can actually have part of their pay zapped to special cash cards as soon as they pick up a load. That way, the costs of moving the load can be paid by the load itself. Confirmation of pay disbursement, naturally, bounces from Ann Arbor, off of the satellites in orbit, and back to a display mounted in the truck.

"This business is not about the cost of moving something," says Chris Hance, a regional sales manager who just spent three years as a regional account executive for Con-Way NOW. "It's about the opportunity cost of not getting it there when you need it." When the Detroit Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, Con-Way NOW moved the merchandise for the celebration. The company has moved the wheel from Wheel of Fortune, and it also routinely handles equipment for the military, medical supplies, newspaper inserts that are time sensitive, and, most often, auto parts, the kind of equipment that keeps an assembly line up and running. Ford books an average of 1,000 such shipments of auto parts each month.

To a big manufacturer, spending a few thousand dollars to move equipment is nothing compared with letting an assembly line sit idle at a cost of $100,000 an hour. "We are Big Brother," says Hance. "That's what we are selling to our customers. They always know where the shipment is. We've got what it takes to let them sleep at night"...

Posted by DeLong at July 13, 2003 06:47 PM | TrackBack

Comments

The exec is too optimistic. The laptop in his first paragraph can and will be spoofed by savvy thieves and new crimes will arise to take advantage of GPS technology.

But I must admit GPS technology, combined with the near constant surveilance we are often, creeps me the hell out.

Big Brother had nothing on this.

Posted by: Ian Welsh on July 13, 2003 07:22 PM

I think the interplay of technology and crime detection will be one of the major themes of the near future. Most, if not all, states are already building DNA databases of convicted felons and matching crime scene evidence against those databases, with good success. Soon enough DNA will provide a description of the offender even if there is no match against a database.

The consequences are hard to foresee. Will there be a dramatic drop in violent crime? Will juries become obsolete? Will the death penalty become more popular as one of the great arguments against it – the danger of wrongful conviction – weakens. How can this sort of technological evidence be challenged? What is the impact on civil liberties and the rights of the accused?

I don’t pretend to know the answers, but I am confident that the questions are well worth asking.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov on July 13, 2003 08:42 PM

On the tube the other day I saw some celebrity whose child had been abducted and murdered (dang, can't remember his name) talking about putting transmitter implants in children's teeth so that if abducted they could be quickly located by GPS.

Sort of like Lojack for children.

On the one hand it sounds sort of creepy. On the other hand, if we value our children more than our cars....

Posted by: Jim Glass on July 13, 2003 11:20 PM

"Soon enough DNA will provide a description of the offender even if there is no match against a database."

And maybe not long after that if they don't catch the perpetrator they'll be able to clone him from the DNA evidence and jail the clone.

"Will juries become obsolete? ... How can this sort of technological evidence be challenged?"

It brings to mind the Simpsons special where they explained how to cover the real ending of the _Who Shot Mr Burns?_ episode they made up a dummy in which Smithers did it -- but added "though to be fooled by it, you'd have to ignore all the Simpson DNA evidence ... and how believable is that??"

In a lot of ways traditional juries are already obsolete (and they certainly are not today what they were set up to be long ago) but making institutional changes is difficult.

Posted by: Jim Glass on July 13, 2003 11:36 PM

I'm a pessimist on this stuff. For example:

"On the tube the other day I saw some celebrity whose child had been abducted and murdered (dang, can't remember his name) talking about putting transmitter implants in children's teeth so that if abducted they could be quickly located by GPS."

-- and once one or two kids are located this way, a cottage industry of GPS-removers (or, even worse, teeth-removers) grows to fill the demand.

"Soon enough DNA will provide a description of the offender even if there is no match against a database."

-- and how soon will those who carry out crimes learn to spread other people's DNA around?

And that's just off the top of one person's head. Seems like there is always a low-tech way around a high-tech solution.

Posted by: Tom Slee on July 14, 2003 07:10 AM

All transistors can be disabled by an electro-magnetic pulse, unless 'hardenened' in some fashion. If car thieves learn that in a particular model of BMW all the chips are in the left rear quarter panel, it won't be long before someone puts instructions on how to make a little 'Gauss gun' on the net.

Manufacturers will then need to move the chips around to different parts of the car. Which will drive up the cost of the car. But there still needs to be a record for each car that tells whoever (owner, selling dealer, mechanic) where the chip is in this particular car. So maybe that kind of info will be sold to rings of car thieves by insiders at the manufacturing plant or, more likely, dealerships.

So then they put the chips right next to the important chips that make the car go. All cars manufactured in at least the last 10 years need microprocessors to function. When you burn out the location chip, you also burn out other chips and the car is undrivable.

So, now what? Well, GPS requires line-of-sight to a satellite. So the location thingie doesn't work in tunnels, parking garages, etc. So all I need to do is disable the location thing until I get it inside, somewhere. Satellite signals are susceptible to jamming. I carry a little box around with me that jams at the GPS satellite's frequency, I break into the car, turn on my jammer, drive it to the local chop shop, and I'm good. At the chop shop the chip can be removed. Most of the cars stolen these days are disassembled for parts anyway, so who cares about the stupid location chip?

There will always be a way around whatever technology is used to prevent theft. The privacy implication of insurance companies (or your HMO, or the government) knowing where you are (and where you've been) is way more scary than the thought that someone will steal my car.

Posted by: Alex Johns on July 14, 2003 07:52 AM

" When you call Con-Way NOW and book a shipment, that shipment will arrive at the time promised, whether it's going across the state or across three time zones."

A consummation devoutly to be wished. Especially since I've got a customer's truck backed up to my warehouse right now waiting for a semi to appear from 2000 miles away so we can offload material and upload it in one fell swoop.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on July 14, 2003 08:34 AM

As creepy as the rest is, the truck thing is really really cool.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on July 14, 2003 08:51 AM

"-- and how soon will those who carry out crimes learn to spread other people's DNA around?"

Well, Moriarty will do it, of course. And so will some others - I think there have already been a few cases (or did I see that on TV?). But in many instances it will not be possible to plant DNA credibly. DNA from a blood or semen sample is one thing; DNA from a bit of saliva that happens to be around is something else.

On the question of defendants' rights, what we have seen is not so much criminals planting DNA as police labs falsifying results. Does this suggest that the "right to confront one's accuser" ought to include the right to an independent test of the evidence, even at public expense for an indigent defendant?

Not a new problem, I understand, but one that seems even more serious when DNA results are accepted as conclusive.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov on July 14, 2003 09:01 AM

"-- and how soon will those who carry out crimes learn to spread other people's DNA around?"

Well, Moriarty will do it, of course. And so will some others - I think there have already been a few cases (or did I see that on TV?). But in many instances it will not be possible to plant DNA credibly. DNA from a blood or semen sample is one thing; DNA from a bit of saliva that happens to be around is something else.

On the question of defendants' rights, what we have seen is not so much criminals planting DNA as police labs falsifying results. Does this suggest that the "right to confront one's accuser" ought to include the right to an independent test of the evidence, even at public expense for an indigent defendant?

Not a new problem, I understand, but one that seems even more serious when DNA results are accepted as conclusive.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov on July 14, 2003 09:06 AM

Alex's and the similar comments above are spot-on. Two words: Faraday cage. It should be noted that other geolocating technology exists--such as cellphone triangulation--and will undoubtedly be combined with GPS for fault-tolerance. Still, you're relying on EM, and EM can be blocked and interfered with. The upshot to all this is that in terms of security, it's like any other technology: dissuasive to the amateur, not much of an impediment to the pro.

The real benefit will be in non-security applications. Some of them will be obvious, like the shipping example, some of them will be very surprising.

As to privacy fears: well, I continue to be underwhelmed. First, I think that privacy is, in general, overvalued, especially in the US. Second, I think that many of the concerns will be, in practice, nullified by the ubiquity of the technology. But I could be wrong. In any event, privacy concerns will be mostly answered through evolving cultural custom, as always.

Posted by: Keith M Ellis on July 14, 2003 09:08 AM

Once only for prisoners, now for anybody in a subordinate relationship: http://www.gpschildlocatorwatch.com/

Note that you can do most of this stuff today with those cell phone systems that support location tracking, for example AT&T GSM service "mLife" includes stuff that let's you track your "friends" location:

http://www.attws.com/mmode/features/findit/FindFriends/

The trucking story reminds me of the opening scene of snowcrash.

No more lost socks?
http://enthusiasm.cozy.org/archives/000051.html#000051

Posted by: Ben Hyde on July 14, 2003 12:27 PM

Never thought that much about the creepy aspects of this.

But GPS sure is used in the natural resource fields a lot for locating places in the woods. Guys sure seem to get a big kick out of it especially. It seems almost every sportsmen related thing will eventually have something GPS attached to it.

At a birthday party I was at recently the big hit for the guys was going out to see the host's new remote controlled trolling motor, and it was an enormous amusement for us women listening to the men discuss the relative merits of having a GPS attached to the trolling motor.

Posted by: northernLights on July 20, 2003 01:13 PM
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