Tracking People Using Mobile Phones Location Philosophy Essay

Parents can now keep tabs on children, and employers on their employees, using a variety of services that displays the mobile phone’s location through GPS technology. Modern mobile phones are being equipped with geographical positioning systems which enable a new type of applications to be used - Location Based Services (LBS). These services are increasingly being adopted by parents and employers to track and monitor movement of children and employees. LBS include personal locators for children, the elderly, employees and even parolees for law enforcement. GPS enables the receivers to pinpoint the longitude and latitude of a subject 24 hours a day 7 days a week. (Michael, 2006)


"Tracking human movements is the new thing to do with a mobile phone. By monitoring the signals from 100,000 mobile-phone users sending and receiving calls and text messages, a team from Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, have worked out some apparently universal laws of human motion. The results could help epidemiologists to predict how viruses will spread through populations, and help urban planners and traffic forecasters to allocate resources." (Smith, 2008)

But what are the cons of such a thing?

In this paper we will see the facts of such location based tracking. In my dissertation titled - Location Based Mobile Advertising we studied the importance of having an opt in confirmation by the user using this service and also that data being obtained by the system is not in any way stored or accessible by other parties. More information about this will be given in more depth in the background research section.

We will have a look of the various stakeholders involved and different scenarios were mobile phones are being used as tracking devices. These include children, employees, elderly and sick people, criminals and sex offenders. Are people aware that they are being tracked? What happens if the system fails to track the users in the correct position? Who will be accountable to incorrect information retrieved?

The relevant laws, guidelines and policies based on the Maltese law will also be identified. We will also answer the following questions: Is all this ethical? Can this lead to a breach of an individual’s right to privacy? What about the rights to be informed on the other? Are we protected by law if we find out that we are being tracked?

In the background research section we will understand better what technology is available to date to track individuals. This can be checked in the following section. Further on this paper, a list of ethical issues and a brief description of each will be given. This will then be used to describe the ethical theory and an ethical analysis of the scenario using the ethical theory.

We will then evaluate the possible consequences and possible side-effects of the results obtained keeping always in mind the ethical theory.


"The field of ethics involves systematizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior." (Fieser, 2009) Ethics is also defined as "a system of moral principles, by which human actions and proposals may be judged good or bad or right or wrong" (Macquarie Dictionary) Is it ethical of not for a parent to track his/her child? Is it ethical for an employer to track his employees during working hours? The answer for these questions and many others to come is not a simple yes or no since it involves very complex ‘if statements’ that make it complicated to distinguish what is right or wrong.

This study is aimed at exploring whether the real-time tracking and monitoring of people is morally right or wrong. The concept of tracking and monitoring using GPS technologies is far from novel. Numerous studies and experiments have investigated the potential of GPS to record a person’s movements. Unfortunately, however, very few studies have attempted to explore the ethical problems of GPS tracking. (Michael, 2006)

The approach used in identifying if it’s right or wrong, is based on four main aspects:





Table : Ethics-based conceptual approach (Michael, 2006)

In the following section we are going to analyze different scenarios and identify the stakeholders and understand if the cause is ethical or unethical based on the four main aspects mentioned above.


A stakeholder is any individual or organization that is affected by the activities of a business. These stakeholders may have a direct or indirect interest in the business and may be in contact with the business on a daily basis or may just occasionally. (Sta10) In this paper we are going to refer to the stakeholders as those people who are involved in the tracking or being tracked.

There can be different scenarios where different groups of people can be tracked. In this section we will take into consideration a couple of scenarios and identify the stakeholders in each one of them. Who is tracking who? We will see that a parent can be tracking her child or even an employer tracking his employees. In these cases we cannot generalize by putting all the users tracking equal to each other. Tracking a group that could potentially post a real threat, say parolees, is different than tracking someone who has done no wrong.

Another thing that needs to be kept into consideration – Is the person being watched aware? Can they opt out? If a person is being monitored they have the right to know this. The right to opt out will vary depending on the situation. Using the same example mentioned above, a parolee knows he is being tracked but is not allowed to opt out. People who just bought a shiny new cell phone for their kids should be both aware and able to opt out. (G, 2009)

Each scenario taken below will focus on uses of GPS tracking and monitoring applications. In fact most ethical issues are connected to the control aspect of GPS tracking, as it imposes an intrusive method of supervision. (Michael, 2006)

Employee Monitoring

Employees that are tracked using GPS usually travel in vehicles over long distances. Tracked workers include couriers, bus and truck drivers. The motivation for tracking employees is linked to improving company productivity. It also ensures that truck drivers do not speed and are on track to meet their delivery schedule. In some companies it has also been found that with the use of GPS tracking on the employees, overtime and labor costs have been reduced by a huge percentage. (Michael, 2006)

Who is watching? In this case the employer or the managerial staff will be tracking these employees. We have explained the reasons of why they are tracking the employees and there is wrong about it as long as the data being obtained is used only for this purpose. The employees should also be aware at all times that they are being tracked. In this particular scenario employees cannot opt out of being tracked since usually employee monitoring would be a job policy.

Children Monitoring

In an age where parents are finding it harder to keep a physical eye on their children, more parents are choosing a digital eye instead. (G, 2009) There are a number of GPS products available today which allow parents to track their children. One of the more popular products is Wherifone created by Wherify Wireless. The device is about the size of a credit card and has a feature which alerts emergency services. Previously the company offered a wristwatch tracker but discontinued the production because customers wanted to be able to call their children. Users can find the location of their child by logging onto the company website and viewing data on a map. GPS trackers are an alternative to this. Locations are updated every two minutes so parents can keep a constant eye on their child’s activities. Also there exists a system which allows parents in Australia to immobilize a car while it is moving. Even though the device gives a ninety second warning before the car shuts down, officials are still concerned saying it is dangerous, causes inconvenience and "puts policing in the hands of the individual". A school in Australia is also using a GPS tracking system on their school bus, to monitor the speed and keep track of where children get off the bus. (Michael, 2006) Is this ethical? Is it legal?

In this case the stakeholders are those people that have access to the website. The parents are watching to keep track of their children, who they are legally responsible for. The school is also responsible of the children while they are on school premises and being transported home. In this scenario the children can either be aware that they are being tracked or not aware of the situation at all. Even in this case, assuming that the children are minors, they cannot opt out of being tracked.

In both scenarios the stakeholders are tracking the respective users because ‘they care’. GPS satellite tracking can assist people who are responsible for the wellbeing of others.


The processing of personal data and data protection is all backed up with relevant laws. Different countries have different laws on this perspective. In this paper we are going to use the Maltese Law which is based heavily on the European Law to understand better the ethical issues in the scenarios which have been discussed before. On the website of the office of the Data Protection Commissioner [1] which is part of the Government Portal of Malta, we found two Legal Notices which have to do directly with the tracking of people and the data gathered.

In Legal Notice 16 of 2003 entitled – Processing of Personal Data (Electronic Communications Sector), it was stated that "Personal data must only be collected for legitimate purposes such as (1) the performance of a contract to which the subject of the data was a party; (2) compliance with a legal obligation; or (3) any purpose to which the data subject unambiguously consents." It continues by stating that "The data must be processed fairly and lawfully. The entity processing personal data has a duty to inform the subject of its identity, the purpose of the data processing, and other specifics relating to the data processing." This is not all "The data must be accurate and up-to-date. Data subject have the right to access their personal data and to change or delete incorrect information." "Data controllers must implement security measures to ensure that personal data is adequately protected." Finally "Violations of data privacy regulations invite judicial remedies, administrative remedies, liability and sanctions."

In the Privacy & Data Security Law Journal in the section of data protection in the employment it was stated that "A policy notifying employees of the type of personal data being collected, how it will be used, and the purpose of collecting the data needs to be published. This policy should also include information on employee monitoring, surveillance, drug testing or genetic testing that the employer conducts. Employers should enforce the policy to avoid invasion of privacy grievances and to establish evidence that the policy is controlling. (Sebastien Ducamp, 2007)

In the data protection act (CAP. 440) – Processing of Personal Data (Protection of Minors) we find relevant information on how to answer the questions derived from the second scenario. In point two of this document we read that: "Where any information is derived by any teacher, member of a school administration, or any other person acting in loco parentis or in a professional capacity in relation to a minor, such information may be processed by any of the aforesaid persons if such processing is in the best interest of the minor." (Act, 2004) This statement is backed up by the following clauses:

"Where personal data is being processed as aforesaid, the consent by the parents or other legal guardian of the minor shall not be required if this may be prejudicial to the best interest of the minor"

"In such a case, no parent or other legal guardian of the minor shall have access to any personal data held in relation to such minor."

From this law we can conclude that if the data being collected is for the best interest of the person being tracked then there is no harm in doing so. Parents or legal guardians are by law the protectors of their children and thus have legal consent to safeguard them even by tracking them as long as for their own good.

Having said so, the greatest concern of GPS tracking is the amount of information that can be deduced from the analysis of a person’s movements.


With this extensive propagation of GPS technology should cause us all to stop and think about some of the deeper ethical implications and moral issues that using this type of device on a human being can have. Tracking technology could potentially be a violation of an individual’s right to privacy. (Content4Reprint, 2009)

Products that track people’s movements are already available and these products disregard the privacy of the individuals who use them. These products main aims are being used by parents or caregivers to protect their children or as we have seen to protect employees and have control. One question which arises here is – What will happen if these sorts of devices are not used for their purposes? What if these devices become mandatory in society and everyone will have to carry a GPS device?

Freedom questions are always difficult to discuss because not everyone agrees on the level of freedom that each individual has. (M, 2010) Everyone has the right to eat and have enough food not to starve but unfortunately there is no law that protects the right for every person in the world to have food. Rights and freedom are closely related but there are some grey areas when discussing ethical issues on this level.

As has been discussed in the previous chapter that GPS tracking can be used for good reasons – like to keep children safe or to ensure that employees are working or driving in the norms. Using GPS tracking to violate a person’s right to privacy without any good reason what so ever is unethical. This technology should be used very carefully and with restraint. GPS tracking is about helping people fulfill the contracts that they have. When it comes to complete strangers, one has no contract with them in any way, shape or form. Thus using GPS tracking to learn about their location is truly wrong and unethical! (M, 2010)


In order to understand better this scenario we are going to perform an ethical analysis using one consequentialist and one duty theory.

Utilitarianism (consequentialist)

"Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out that we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do. On the one hand the standard right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. They govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think…" – Jeremy Bentham (Bentham, 1789)

Rule bases its standards as to whether a rule is positive or negative around the fact that if every member of society followed this rule, and there was a greater amount of happiness, then the rule is positive; a greater total of unhappiness would indicate that the rule is negative. The rule utilitarianism in every sense is all against the tracking of human beings. I believe that if anyone is asked if they mind being tracked every day, everywhere they go the answer would obviously be a no. Since the general society is not happy of being tracked then the rule utilitarianism does not like it either!

Although act utilitarianism is against user tracking, it is in favor of rules that prevent such an act. When rules are in place preventing user tracking, the happiness greatly outweighs the unhappiness. Happiness prevails in the way that everyone can feel safe and rest assured that they are safe. There is minimal unhappiness in this scenario. Act utilitarianism declares user tracking unethical but declares laws against user tracking ethical.

Using all the ethical evaluation, user tracking, in all its forms, based on rule utilitarianism is unethical. Setting forth a set of laws against user tracking would be, in all its forms, ethical.

Rights Theory (Duty Theory)

This duty-based approach to ethics justifies a "right" against another person’s behavior – it is my right not to be harmed by my neighbor. Rights and duties are related in such a way that the right of one person implies the duties of another person. In the United States Declaration we find three fundamental rights which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (Fieser, 2009)

Rights and freedoms are very closely related. They are also areas that are highly contested among individuals and nations. One man’s freedom is another’s chain. (M, 2010) Referring to the two scenarios mentioned earlier of a parent tracking a child and an employer tracking his employees, we can see this relationship that in fact the child and employee’s freedom is in fact the parent and employer’s chain…

Right’s theory refers heavily to human rights. All humans have moral and legal rights depending where they live. Sometimes unfortunately we can see something as morally wrong but is in fact legally right. We have already quoted relevant laws and policies under the Maltese law based on what we have seen in the scenario.

A good quote I found is that of Robert Ingersoll when he said "Give to every human being every right that you claim for yourself." If we do this then the world would really be a better place to live in!


"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." – Benjamin Franklin

After evaluating the scenario using two different ethical theories we will show the possible consequences on the decision following the ethical analysis. From what we have seen so far there is not clear yes or no answer in deciding whether tracking a person is deemed ethical. We have seen two different scenarios were people are being tracked for a reason. Stakeholders have been identified and the ethical analysis has been carried out using two different theories.

The rule utilitarianism clearly states that if someone is unhappy then the rule is negative. I don’t think that any person is happy to be tracked on every move he/she does. Tracking a person makes the person uncomfortable and thus unhappy. Although one can assume that the tracking of employees and children is done as means of protection, it is still assumed unethical according to the rule utilitarianism.

We have also performed an ethical analysis based on the rights theory. As we said in the previous chapter a man’s freedom can be someone else’s chain. Everyone has the right to be free but parents have also the right over the protection of their children. The same goes with the employer and employee scenario. During work the employer still has the right to be free but the employer has the right to know what his employees are doing during the working hours since they are getting paid for their job.

In Table 2 below we can see points of both tracking cases with reasons for being ethical and unethical:


Reasons for being ethical

Reasons for being unethical

Parent tracking children

Children can be located if they are lost or abducted

Can prevent children from speeding or disobeying instructions

Invasion of child’s privacy

The child may not have a choice

Employers tracking employees

Business owners can increase profits by ensuring employees are working efficiently

Encourages workers to be honest

Employees may still be tracked outside work hours and the information used against them

May be used to unfairly discipline drivers

Table : The Ethical Possibilities (Michael, 2006)

So we still cannot say that tracking is right or wrong based on what we have stated above! According to the ethical analysis of this scenario, the tracking of people can be ethical or unethical depending on the situation and stakeholders involved. Laws and policies help to make sure that every person’s right is unharmed.


Based on what we have just discussed, tracking of users is a very delicate issue to discuss. There is no clean line that can be drawn to say that cases of tracking are ethical and others are not. Each scenario needs to be discussed separately and treated differently than the others.

We have seen that tracking of a user can indeed breech the individual’s right to privacy. If this is the result of tracking then it can be easily said that tracking is unethical. It’s not always the case though since tracking might be useful for a parent to safeguard a child and an employer to warn an employee of fast driving. In this case tracking can be seen as an ethical solution given that the person being tracked knows about it and preferably can opt out of being tracked.

According to Tien, legislation has not kept up with the pace of the technology. "Location has not had legal protection," he says. "When we embrace these accessible and relatively insecure location technologies, we need to have privacy designed in if we want to prevent that ‘everyon’s trackable’ scenario." (Halperin, 2007)

The technology exists and unfortunately we can do nothing about that. The GPS policy indicates that the GPS system can be shut down in certain areas "under only the most remarkable circumstances", lik in the event of a terrorist attack. (Michael, 2006) We need to be aware that location based services applications are increasing fast and without knowing we can have a couple of these applications installed on our smart phone. We should pay attention and protect our privacy. Also for the stakeholders who are utilizing location based services it is fundamental to keep in mind that this technology can produce inaccuracies in readings and false positives.