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'Location Privacy' Threatens to Emerge as a Major Fleet Issue

July 7, 2008, by Mike Antich - Also by this author

 By Mike Antich One of the wisest observations ever made to me about predicting the future direction of fleet management was by Jim Noonan, then-vice president at PHH. In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Jim told me that if you wanted to identify the next big trends in fleet management, you need to look outside our industry. He said that fleet is not an innovator of trends; however, it is usually an early adopter. Since that conversation (in the mid-1980s), I often reflect on Jim’s words and have watched one industry trend after another support his hypothesis. One example is outsourcing, which started in the IT industry, but quickly swept the commercial fleet world in the late 1980s. Another example was Web-enabled transactional and management systems, which were literally adopted overnight by fleet in the late 1990s.

Since that conversation, I spend much time following non-fleet-related trends to see how they may ultimately find applicability and synergy in fleet management, in particular, technological trends. I believe technology, such as telematics, will radically alter our industry – changing fleet management from an art to a science. However, I recognize that employee resistance to “Big Brother” technology continues to impede widespread adoption.

Collision Between Privacy & Technology

As OEMs and third-party providers install a broader range of telematic devices in future model-year vehicles, fleets (and drivers) will be more receptive to the efficacy of telematics in managing assets. Paralleling this is the ubiquity of portable hand-held devices with the ability to pinpoint the location of individuals and reveal it to others. These devices produce a “digital bread crumb” where everyday activities and movements of individuals can be traced and recorded. This makes some people nervous. As such, I believe “location privacy” has a strong potential to become a hot-button societal issue in the next decade. The points of controversy focus on privacy infringement and potential abuse due to the pervasiveness of GPS-based products and services. The long-term implications frighten many privacy advocates. Unfortunately, I believe fleet management will be swept up into this controversy. I predict this issue will first emerge in the EU, which has stronger privacy laws than the U.S., before it migrates across the Atlantic via multinational companies operating in the NAFTA region.

Location information is a set of data describing an individual’s location over a period of time. Location information is sensitive private data for many reasons. Without the ability to control the collection of location information, individuals may lose the privacy safeguards currently afforded by other federal and state laws. For example, location information reveals physical destinations, such as medical clinics or government services buildings, which may imply additional information about an individual. For instance, the information implied from location data may reveal other indirect information, such as a person’s health condition, which is protected by laws limiting access to such data.

Another interesting (albeit obvious) observation is the Web of today will not be the Web of tomorrow. One scenario is that the Internet will evolve into a virtual global sensor network, with the ability to pinpoint, on demand, the location of any person or Web-enabled object. For instance, if Bluetooth is turned on, a cell phone can see and be seen by other Bluetooth devices. In some cases, location identification is passive. For example, the iPhone has an accelerometer that determines whether you are sitting or walking. You don’t have to use the phone; it’s just measured.

Just as we use data mining today to extract useful information from a sea of data, we will be able to mine geographic information system data. The term used to describe this technology is “reality mining.” The MIT Technology Review called reality mining one of the 10 technologies most likely to change the way we live and work. In essence, reality mining is the large-scale mining of “activity data” collected via GPS systems embedded in a multiplicity of portable devices. (There are more than 2.8 billion active cell phones in use today.) The pioneer of reality mining is Dr. Alex (Sandy) Pentland, a computer scientist at MIT, who predicts it will be used in a wide variety of applications. Besides employee productivity and route optimization programs, this technology has far broader applications in healthcare, product marketing, retailing, advertising, law enforcement/homeland security, etc. Despite data anonymity safeguards, privacy advocates promise to be vocal (and litigious) opponents to these technological advances.

Invalidating Conditions of Employment

At some companies, acquiescing to location tracking is a condition of employment if you wish to be assigned a company-provided vehicle. However, what happens when corporate mandates collide with personal liberties? When adjudicated, court rulings always supersede any condition of employment.

Let me know what you think.


  1. 1. anne1 [ July 10, 2008 @ 10:02AM ]

    Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful article regarding location privacy issues and their potential impact on fleet management.

    Hopefully companies will take steps to address the issues themselves by adopting policies that respect employee privacy. This includes, but is not limited to, notifying employees when GPS devices are being utilized, what is being traced, and enabling the employee to turn off the device when not on company time, etc.

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Author Bio

Mike Antich

Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and entered the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

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