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Electronic footprints New GPS surveillance unit keeps tabs on lost truckers, teenage drivers and cheating spouses

Even if he travels 100 miles, truck driver Joe Puntillo doesn't leave the sight of his boss.

His Nextel cell phone pinpoints his location using the Global Positioning System and sends his coordinates back to the trucking company, George W. Burnett Inc. in Buffalo. There, general manager Russell J. Deveso can check the truck's location on a computer screen, updated as often as 15 minutes.

Some companies have used GPS technology for years to keep tabs on trucks and cargo -- Burnett has had the GPS phones for about a year. General Motors' OnStar location system has been available in upscale vehicles since 1995.

Now the technology is proliferating -- GPS is standard equipment in most new cell phones -- bringing location tracking into the mainstream and fueling fears about inroads on privacy. Eventually all 182 million U.S. cell subscribers will carry some sort of tracking technology, thanks to federal emergency requirements. In addition, prices are plunging for non-phone GPS gadgets, now available for a few hundred dollars.

Puntillo doesn't mind having his route tracked. "It's a comfort, really," he says. "It's better than dispatch calling (and asking) where you are."

It's a comfort for the trucking company, too. Burnett often delivers truckloads of hot asphalt to waiting construction crews, so preventing delays is important.

"Drivers can do some strange things," Deveso says. "You still have a human behind the wheel." Having the GPS phones costs about $50 a month per truck, he said. Once, dispatchers used the technology to give directions to a driver unsure of his route in northern Ohio, helping him deliver on time.

Privacy concerns aren't stopping people from snapping up the tracking devices in droves, either as a navigation aid or to keep tabs on each other.

"People are worried that other people are watching them -- which they are, but there's a need for that," says Chris Vattimo, general manager of Nextel's Western New York office.

At Nextel, which is leading the GPS push among wireless companies, location services are a hot feature with customers, Vattimo said, spurring sales of new handsets. He uses his phone's GPS feature to navigate during trips around the region. With his destination typed in, a service that monitors his location can keep him on track.

"A woman's voice will actually read you directions," he said.

All Nextel phones, which start at $50 with a rate plan, are GPS-capable, Vattimo said. Subscribing to a location service adds $10 to $20 a month to the rate plan. The wireless company recently merged with Sprint but continues to market products under the Nextel name.

Other cellular companies are preparing to launch similar tracking services, taking advantage of the location technology already embedded in the phone.

For example, Verizon Wireless phones have had GPS chips for the last three years to comply with FCC rules, spokesman John O'Malley said.

Currently the phones calculate the user's location only when he or she dials 911, O'Malley said. But the company is looking at future GPS-based services, like traffic alerts and city guides that give directions to banks and restaurants. "The customer would have to opt into that [service], and be able to disable it if they want to," he said.

Pronounced fully operational in 1995, the Global Positioning System uses a flock of 24 Defense Department satellites to triangulate a user's position. A receiver clipped to your belt, or concealed under your bumper, computes your location using timed signals from the nearest satellites. Accuracy varies, but many commercial tracking companies say they're accurate to about a block. "Real-time" devices use a cellular link to relay your coordinates, telling you -- or your boss, police, a direction service, etc. -- your whereabouts.

The Federal Communications Commission requires cell phones to have tracking ability under its "Enhanced 911" or E911 rules, so emergency responders can find accident victims. Cellular carriers may use GPS tracking or alternative location methods, such as triangulating from cell towers, to meet the requirement.

GPS tracking has been around for years, generally in more expensive forms. Since 1999, Howard Goldman's company in Buffalo has made under-car tracking devices that he sells for $2,400 to $3,000, not including monthly usage fees. Users log on to a Web site to view the device's route, which is updated when the car moves from being parked, and every 15 minutes thereafter. The buyers have included private investigators and concerned parents as well as police. "I've had people follow their kid to college," Goldman said. The GPS receiver was wired to the vehicle's battery for power. Another user, embroiled in a custody battle, tracked her ex-husband, fearful that he might snatch their child and leave the country. Now cheaper tracking devices with fewer features are being advertised on the Internet for a few hundred dollars. Some inexpensive devices don't require a cell phone link, meaning the user must retrieve the device to read out the log of locations it recorded.

The ubiquity of location technology is sparking fears about inroads on privacy. Federal authorities can obtain a warrant to read your location from your cell phone, or put their own tracking device on your car without court permission.

"There's not a statue out there that says, 'thou shalt not,' " said Chris Hoofnagle, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in San Francisco. As long as a vehicle is in public, there's little privacy protection for its occupant, he said. Police are more frequently getting warrants to "ping" GPS phones in order to locate suspects, and some cities are considering tracking the movements of sex offenders. In Connecticut, a car rental company charged customer James Turner a $450 fee for speeding, based on GPS data, in a widely reported case in 2001.

"For many years it's been generally accepted that there's no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. The reasoning is that anyone could follow you while you're in public, with or without GPS. "But in the last 10 to 15 years, people question whether that's the right answer," he said.

Tracking someone's every move for days, as electronics can do, is fundamentally different from following someone down the street, privacy advocates argue. What's more, GPS tracking logs can create a record of your movements. "People think 'Who wants to track me?' " not realizing that a service provider may preserve a record of their movements for posterity, Tien said.

The law is murky on just who can track you. Private investigators say they and other private citizens are free to put a GPS device on a vehicle. But anti-stalking groups say that state stalking laws contain language against "following" and "surveillance" that apply to GPS trackers. "Cyberstalkers" are taking advantage of GPS technology, according to the state Attorney General's office.

But for law enforcement, the spread of GPS is a benefit. Said Special Agent Paul M. Moskal, spokesman for the FBI in Buffalo: "OnStar, your cell phone -- everybody has GPS these days."

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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