- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 22, 2002

Tech stuff that starts off as pricey equipment for the government has a way of filtering down to the rest of us. For many years in movies we have watched federal cops hiding small radio transmitters on the cars of bad guys so as to track them. Now you can track your children the same way.
You can buy, for in the vicinity of $1,000, depending on promotions, options and such, a gadget called CarTracker. It is a GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver with a computer built in. A strong magnet allows it to be attached to a car surreptitiously. (Laws on this vary by state. It is the user's responsibility to stay legal.) Or it can be hidden inside the car.
GPS is a system of military satellites now widely used in the civilian world. They transmit signals that, when picked up by a special receiver, can give latitude and longitude to within about 30 feet, depending on conditions. Once expensive, civilian receivers now cost roughly $200. Backpackers use them. They are being built into navigation systems for cars. And, now, also into tracking devices for private investigators (PIs).
Says the CarTracker Web site: "Want to know the whereabouts of your teenager? CarTracker is designed to be concealed within the vehicle, allowing you to record the complete travel activities of any vehicle anywhere anytime including the address of each destination, names of streets traveled, how long the vehicle remained at each location, and whether the driver was speeding."
Adolescents everywhere will doubtless be delighted.
CarTracker is also useful, says the manufacturer, for keeping tabs on commercial vehicles. (Try www.pimall.com for a lot of interesting gadgets available to PIs.) The problem is that you have to remove CarTracker from the car and download the data into a personal computer in order to read it. This can be a nuisance. Once you have done so, there is software that plots the car's activities on street maps. It's slick.
For bigger bucks, there are slicker devices that work in real time. A few years back, when I was writing a police column, I talked to a guy who worked with the technology group of a federal law-enforcement agency. It was a not-for-attribution discussion, so I'll leave it at that. They were using cell phones to track serious bad guys. What the feds did was to take the innards out of an ordinary cell phone and mate them with a GPS receiver. A small amount of computing power was built in to control the operation of the device. The resulting package was designed to be concealed in a car and to use the car's electrical system for power.
The result was that when John Gotti or whoever started his car, the cell phone automatically dialed the feds. The GPS receiver busily calculated the car's location. Every so many seconds, the unit transmitted the data over the cell phone. Back at the station, an ordinary personal computer plotted the car's course in real time on a moving map of the city. If Gotti decided to drive down Interstate 95 to Washington to do something nefarious, the cell phone kept working. All the cops had to do was watch the screen and be sure the doughnuts didn't run out.
The technology, new then, has become available to others. Trucking companies use somewhat similar systems to know just where trucks are, both for scheduling and for keeping drivers honest.
Cell phones and computers are everywhere. The notion of plotting GPS position data on a moving map (one that changes to follow the vehicle) is something I first ran into a couple of decades ago on combat aircraft.
The equipment then was phenomenally expensive and regarded as a species of magic: The pilot could fly to his target in zero visibility.
Now GPS satellites are there for anyone to use. And you can track teenagers with it.

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