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Privacy is a growing concern in today’s world where there are surveillance cameras on every other corner and RFID chips in our passports. You can no longer check into most hotels without showing ID and you certainly can’t fly on a commercial airline anonymously. It seems as if the government is determined to track us everywhere we go, and with modern technology, it’s increasingly easy to do. But it’s not just government agencies, private eyes and industrial spies who are using technology for that purpose. The ability to track others’ movements and activities is increasingly available to anyone who wants to use it.

After all, who among us hasn’t wished, at one time or another, that we had a way to know where our kids, spouses, those who work for us or other people are at any given time? Whether you’re suspicious that they’re doing something wrong, worried about their safety or just missing them, you’ve probably had the thought that it would be nice to tune in to them telepathically and know that they’re headed home, or safe at the office or school.

Probably no one thinks about it more than the parent of a teenager, especially one who’s just learned to drive and is out in the family car doing his or her first solo excursions. And although the feeling of fear over the loss of control as your little ones start to become adults can probably never be eliminated, today’s parents are a little less helpless than those of previous generations when it comes to keeping tabs.

We’ve discussed here previously how GPS enabled cell phones can be used to track people’s locations and we talked about the service offered by Disney Mobile that’s specifically aimed at parents who want to keep up with where their kids are going. Prices for the GPS enabled phones start at a little over $100 and the rate plans begin at $24.99 per month for 200 minutes, a bit more than the typical cell phone service but not outrageous. Disney lets you select a “family manager” to control other family members’ phone features and oversee activity. The family manager must be at least 18 years old, and the web site notes that accounts can be established for children only, and asks for the birth date of each person who will have a phone. The adult does not have to have a phone to be the family manager.

Since our last comments on this subject, tracking has gotten more popular and now you can get tracking services that aren’t necessarily limited to children. Another service that’s touted for tracking both children and senior citizens, as well as business use, is Wherifone. Their GPS enabled phones come in only one model (but five different colors) and cost only $59.95 with a two year contract. Service plans start at $19.95 per month. Coverage is available in most of the eastern half of the U.S. and major cities in the southwest and west coast, but not in some states in the northwest and midwestern areas.

The best major cellular provider for tracking options is Nextel, which offers a Mobile Locator service that allows you to view and monitor other peoples’ locations in real time, individually or as a group. It’s targeted at employers, who use it to keep track of where their employees are, and it works with some models of Blackberry devices as well as Nextel GPS-enabled phones. The locator service costs $15/month per phone, in addition to the phone service itself.

But cell phones aren’t the only way now that technology can track you (or you can use it to track others). More and more of my friends lately seem to be opting for the OnStar service that’s available for GM vehicles. One feature of that service is the GPS system built into the vehicle, which can be used to locate your vehicle if it’s stolen or if you need assistance and don’t know where you are or if your air bags deploy and you’re unable to respond when the operators attempt to contact you. All of this, of course, comes with a monthly fee ranging from about $17 to about $27 per month, depending on the features you want. You can also add hands-free calling through the system, where you buy pre- paid minutes or link the vehicle to a regular Verizon Wireless account.

And you don’t have to have a particular make and model of car to be able to track your teenager’s driving location and even speeds. YDS (Youth Driving Safe) can provide GPS equipment that can be installed in any vehicle and parents can monitor their kids’ driving habits from their PCs on a map that displays date, time, address/location, speed and direction of travel. Or if you don’t have access to a computer, you can call a phone number and get an automated voice recording telling you this information as an optional feature. An advantage of this service over the cell phone tracking is that it saves a historical record of the tracking info online, so you can go back and look at where the car was a day, week or month ago. You can set up “off limits” locations or set a speed limit and be notified if the car violates the rules, and it’s even possible to remotely disable the ignition.

There are good reasons to keep an eye on what your children are doing (such as the fact that you’re financially and sometimes criminally responsible for their actions while they’re minors). And being able to locate an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s who’s wandered away could save his or her life. Employers have a right to know where employees are taking company vehicles. In fact, good cases can often be made for tracking others’ activities – the question is: where do we draw the line?

In fact, spying on people has become a huge and profitable industry. Companies such as Brickhouse Security sell Nanny Cams, GPS tracking devices, phone recorders, night vision equipment, stealth voice recorders and even semen test kits. And then, just to be sure to get both sides of the market, they sell detection devices so you can discover whether someone else is using their other products against you. Talk about a win/win business situation.

Is it time for privacy advocates to just throw in the towel and admit that in the twenty-first century, there is no such thing anymore? With “eyes in the sky” (satellites) that can take detailed photographs of anyone, anywhere on the planet from orbit, is the entire concept of privacy outdated? Or should we be worried that we’re headed for a world right out of some sci-fi horror story, where most of the human race is enslaved by those who control the technology?

How do you feel about the prevalence of tracking and spying technology? Is it a good thing that will keep people on their best behavior? Or does its use destroy trust between family members, friends, employers and employees and governments and their citizens? Do you or would you use such technology to keep track of someone else? Or do you think it should all be outlawed except in special, court-ordered circumstances?

Deb Shinder, MVP