- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 23, 2003

Big Brother is riding shotgun with the reporters and photographers at WJLA-TV (Channel 7).
The Washington area's ABC affiliate has installed global-positioning-system equipment in all of the company-owned vehicles that its news crews use. Station managers stress the equipment is used to dispatch crews quickly to breaking news, not to spy on them when they are on the road.
Some staffers say the technology invades their privacy.
"It's a very uneasy feeling as you leave the building every day, knowing that your boss knows where you are at all times," said one WJLA photographer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
More employers are using GPS.
The U.S. military developed the system, a network of 24 Earth-orbiting satellites that can be used to determine the precise location and speed of vehicles on the ground. The military eventually opened the technology to private businesses, which have found unique ways to use it.
The University Medical Center in Las Vegas uses GPS-style equipment to keep track of its emergency room nurses and doctors, no matter where they are in the building. Hospital management knows when the staffers arrive for work, as well as when they go to the restroom or step outside for a smoking break.
Many trucking companies use GPS to track cargo, calculate fuel mileage and steer drivers away from bad weather.
A Cincinnati company markets GPS equipment that allows garbage-collection companies to track their trucks to make sure they are stopping at the correct addresses. Installing the equipment discourages drivers from picking up the trash of noncustomers, charging them a discounted rate and then pocketing the cash, the company says.
Some workers have complained the technology violates their right to privacy, forcing labor unions to respond. The contract that the Teamsters labor union struck in August with United Parcel Service Inc., for example, bars the company from citing GPS in evaluating its 230,000 Teamsters employees.
GPS is just one form of technology employers use to monitor their workers, said Matthew W. Finkin, a University of Illinois law professor who studies privacy in the workplace.
Some employers also monitor e-mail, install video cameras in offices and issue their employees high-tech identification badges with tracking capabilities.
"It's just going to get worse. If they invent something, someone is going to find a way to use it," Mr. Finkin said.
Workers who believe employers have used technology to invade their privacy rarely have a legal leg to stand on, said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Privacy Foundation, a Colorado group that studies workplace privacy.
"In terms of monitoring employee productivity on the job, for the most part the legal precedents are on the side of the employer," Mr. Keating said.
Allbritton Communications Co., which owns WJLA and its sister cable network, NewsChannel 8, completed the installation of GPS equipment in its fleet of about 40 news vehicles late last month. No other local television newsroom in the Washington area uses the technology, although it is common at stations in other cities.
Allbritton merged WJLA and NewsChannel 8 in August, creating the largest local television newsroom in Washington. The combined operation is based in Arlington and has about 300 employees, roughly twice the amount of the typical big-city television station.
"We have a staff that is 50 percent larger than our biggest competitor. We want to make maximum use of it," said Christopher W. Pike, president and general manager of WJLA and NewsChannel 8.
He declined to say how much the company spent on the GPS equipment, but stressed it was bought solely for news-gathering purposes.
For example, if a newsroom manager learns of a house fire in Reston, the manager can plug the home's address into a GPS terminal and determine which of the news crews in the field can respond fastest, Mr. Pike said.
Eventually, Allbritton wants to introduce on-air maps that will show viewers the location of a breaking news event and the location of the crew on its way to the scene.
"It's a tremendous news-gathering tool," Mr. Pike said.
Some reporters and photographers fear the equipment will be used against them.
"We all understand we can't take the company car to go to Ocean City for the weekend. But is it OK to pick up milk or pizza on the way home? All of these things were never questioned before we got the GPS system," one photographer said.
Mr. Pike would not comment on whether employees have been disciplined because of the GPS system. Sources in the newsroom said at least two staffers have been disciplined for using a company car for personal use or for speeding in a company car.
The local chapter of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians-Communications Workers of America, the union that represents photographers and technical workers, is proceeding cautiously.
"We do not want this to be used for disciplinary measures," said Mark Peach, the chapter's president.
The Radio Television News Directors Association, an industry trade group, could not provide statistics on the number of television stations that use GPS.
The association's chairman, Dave Busiek, who is news director of the CBS affiliate in Des Moines, Iowa, said his station uses GPS primarily to dispatch crews to the severe storms that are common in his area.
"I don't even know how to use the darn thing. The weather folks use it," he said.
Mr. Keating, the executive director of the privacy rights organization, said it is "ironic" that local television journalists are complaining about GPS. Local television news is known for "gotcha" stories that catch public workers goofing off.
"It's like the classic local TV news story," he said.

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