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Tuesday, 4 January, 2000, 16:37 GMT
Watching me, watching you

You know where you are - but does someone else? You know where you are - but does someone else?

A proposal to install satellite actuated speed-limiters in cars may or may not be a major contribution to road safety, but it does raise issues of privacy.

Quite apart from controlling our cars, will the authorities be able to track our every movement? And how else may Big Brother be watching us?

In fact, the risk of anyone tracing a car through the proposed speed-limiter is remote, according to experts.

The Global Positioning System used to locate a car's position simply picks up signals from up to six satellites and compares them to work out where it is on the globe. The unit doesn't actually talk to the satellites.

"GPS systems don't tell anyone - except you - where you are. And if they could I can't see anyone being able to monitor the position of 22m vehicles every day," says Andrew Howard, road safety chief at the AA.

Leaving aside James Bond-type surveillance equipment such as bugging devices, the most serious candidates for Big Brother technology are spy satellites, and communication systems such as mobile phones.

Spy in the sky

Russian drawing of their Arkon spy satellite Russian drawing of their Arkon spy satellite
The size of a bus, spy satellites are actually huge telescopes, similar to the Hubble Space Telescope, but in this case pointed towards the earth and not the depths of outer space.

Orbiting at altitudes of several hundred kilometres, spy satellites can readily identify and distinguish differing types of vehicles and equipment with resolutions better than 10 centimetres.

But these optical imaging satellites suffer a common shortcoming -- the inability to see through clouds.

There's a lot of exciting technology out there with enormous potential to infringe people's liberties. Whether it does is up to us.
Liz Parratt, Liberty
As their operation is highly classified it is very difficult to say precisely in what circumstances spy satellites are used for visual monitoring in peacetime.

It is reasonable to assume that with only a handful in orbit their attentions are turned to tracking high profile criminal and terrorist activities.

But commercial spy satellites could change all that.

As of 1 January 2000 a US company, Space Imaging, is offering detailed pictures of virtually anything at a resolution down to one metre for prices ranging between $30 and $500.

The satellite, called Ikonos, orbits the earth every 90 minutes at a height of 425 miles and can store up to 100 pictures at a time.

Fancy a quick one?

Mobile phones can be tracked down to within a few hundred metres of where the call is made.

The mobile cellular network works by checking to see which "cell" the user is calling from and then transferring the call to a neighbouring cell as the user moves.

Cellular networks let you run, but not hide Cellular networks let you run, but not hide
Last month it was announced that BT Cellnet is linking up with a national pub chain to send "electronic vouchers" over the mobile-phone network to its 6 million subscribers, alerting them of special offers in the area they are calling from.

Users will be alerted by a different ringing tone telling them they have a message, which will then say which pub they are near, the address and what is on offer.

"There's a lot of exciting technology out there with enormous potential to infringe people's liberties. Whether it does is up to us," says Liz Parratt, from the civil rights campaign group Liberty.

"Technology is outstripping regulation and we need a public debate on these issues. Otherwise we may one day wake up and ask what sort of society it is that we have accidentally created."
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See also:
04 Jan 00 |  UK
'Spy in the sky' targets speeders
04 Jan 00 |  UK
Satellites in the driving seat
21 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Car victims seek speed cuts
25 Aug 99 |  UK
Speeding traffic spoils rural roads

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