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Legal issues surrounding GPS receivers

While it cannot be argued that GPS receivers are one of the navigational tools of the century, the use of satellite navigation systems carries with it some complex legal issues. The use of receivers as tracking tools is a particularly prickly area, raising questions relating to personal rights such as privacy and confidentiality.

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The US Space-Based Positioning, Navigation and Timing policy document provides governmental departments with directives aimed at preventing the hostile use of GPS technology by adversaries of the United States Department of Defense. There is however, currently no statutory legislation that deals specifically with civilian use of GPS technology.

Legal issues relating to the use of satellite navigation are dependent on specific use of GPS receivers. Outlined below are three of the main issues that could arise out of the commercial and business applications of GPS technology:

•  Issues relating to the collection and retention of electronic data have been some of the first to surface with regard to GPS receivers. Workers and consumers have expressed concern about the collection and use of positional information. Electronic tracking devices like those being fitted into cellular phones provide positional information around the clock. Many consumers don't like the fact that cellular phone companies and network providers will be able to constantly track their whereabouts. In the business sphere, electronic tracking is being used to keep track of work hours and determine overtime. In some cases this conflicts with terms of employment and governmental legislation such as the Employment Rights Act of 1996.

•  Privacy issues relating specifically to the use of GPS technology as a tracking device. More and more businesses are installing Automatic Vehicle Location systems into their fleets, as well as tracking devices into employees' cellular phones and pagers. Many monitoring devices continue to relay positional information long after work hours are over. Commercial and trade unions are beginning to ask the question as to when legislation will regulate what is acceptable and what constitutes an infringement of an employee's right to privacy.

•  Manufacturers of navigational equipment need to consider the ramifications of equipment inaccuracies and failure. In the event that an accident occurs as the result of a GPS receiver's malfunction, consumers will have recourse against manufacturers. Similarly, network providers may find themselves at the end of complex legal battles should information from tracking equipment fall into the wrong hands. A good example of this would be the man in California who was arrested for using his GPS enabled cellular phone in conjunction with tracking software to stalk his ex girlfriend.

The subject of GPS and legality is as complex and diverse as the technology itself. Legal debates relating to proper use of GPS navigation and tracking are constantly raging and regulating the technology looks to be a challenging feat for legal boards and governmental agencies. As is the case with all emerging technology, manufacturers and users alike are advised to keep on top of all industry developments. Until proper legislation is implemented, companies and agencies are also advised to take as many measures as is possible to protect themselves legally.