Big boss is watching

Wireless companies are rolling out new GPS services for employers that can track the physical location of mobile workers.

Ben Charny
Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
4 min read
Cell phones are giving employers new ways to check up on employees in the field--and raising fresh workplace privacy concerns as a result.

On the leading edge of the trend is Nextel Communications. The wireless provider began selling its Mobile Locator service last November, giving bosses an easy way to find employees who carry GPS-equipped cell phones.

Earlier this month, mobile tracking firm Xora showed off the latest version of its Nextel GPS (global positioning system) phone software. The company says 1,600 corporate customers have signed up for its services, including "geofences" technology that sets off an alarm at the office when field workers go to preprogrammed off-limits sites, such as a bar or a park.


What's new:
GPS-enabled cell phones can track users, and employers are eager to keep their mobile workers on an electronic leash.

Bottom line:
Bosses want the service, many consumers want the service, and the technology is becoming cheaper and more widely available. Get used to the eye in the sky.

More stories on GPS

"There's no electro shock--yet," Xora CEO Sanjay Shirole said.

Employee-tracking devices are gaining steam thanks to ever-more-accurate GPS technology and a U.S. mandate requiring wireless companies to develop ways for emergency workers to find the physical location of people who dial 911 on a cell phone.

Developed in the 1970s by the U.S. military, GPS uses signals from low orbit satellites to triangulate the position of a ground-based receiver. GPS trackers were once an expensive luxury, but costs have plunged with the expansion of cellular-phone services.

Now new enhanced 911 (E911) emergency regulations governing wireless carriers promise to unleash profitable new GPS services, analysts say. To comply with the rules, carriers have begun running more accurate GPS technology capable of supporting a range of commercial services that go beyond emergency location.

"This high-accuracy infrastructure is setting the stage for high-accuracy location-based services," said a spokesman for TruePosition, a cell phone location service provider.

Other GPS cell phone service providers include TeleNav and uLocate.

Tracking the market
In a sign of growing market for such services, GPS chip designer SiRF Technology, which provides GPS technology for handset maker Motorola, has seen its revenue grow from $15 million in 2001 to $30.4 million in 2002 to $73.1 million last year. The company went public in April.

Chip designer Qualcomm is also seeing demand for its GPS One technology, having signed up 15 carriers worldwide and around 20 handset manufacturers. As of April, about 120 cell phone models contained Qualcomm-based GPS units. Along with providing chips, Qualcomm sells server software for improving GPS speed and accuracy.

Xora said hundreds of companies, including transportation giant U.S. Foodservice, have signed up for its GPS TimeTrack technology to monitor employee timesheets, jobs and locations using GPS-enabled Nextel phones.

GPS TimeTrack is a Java program that sits on a cell phone, and periodically requests latitude and longitude information from the phone's GPS system. At this point, Nextel is the only company that makes a GPS-enabled phone that works with the software, although the company expects the application to be supported by other phone makers.

"There's no electro shock--yet."
--Sanjay Shirole,
CEO of Xora

Xora's product is taking off quickly. It was only July when the company said it signed its 1,000th GPS TimeTrack customer. "It's just incredible momentum," said Ananth Rani, the company's vice president of products and services. "We're adding about 200 a month."

As GPS technology proliferates, there's growing awareness among cell phone owners that the devices can track them. Nearly half of all wireless phone users and 55 percent of all wireless Internet users knew of some location-based services, according to a survey by In-Stat/MDR. More importantly to U.S. cell phone carriers, more than a third of those surveyed said they'd be willing to pay a monthly fee for location services.

Nevertheless, the surveillance capabilities of these phones are raising privacy concerns.

Every move you make, the boss is watching you
One of the earliest examples of how an employer can walk this fine line is in Chicago, where about 500 city employees now carry geo-tracking phones, mainly as a tool to increase their productivity. The phones were distributed to employees only after their unions won several concessions, including allowing workers to shut down geo-tracking features during lunch time and after hours.

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Another showdown over the technology erupted last year in Massachussetts, when the state highway department proposed issuing GPS-phones to snowplow drivers to achieve greater accountability from 2,200 independent contractors used to clear the roads. Hundreds of drivers threatened to sit out the first major snowfall of the year in protest, but eventually agreed to use the phones on a trial basis.

A San Diego-based consumer advocacy group, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, advises employers to only consider using the phones to achieve a legitimate business purpose, and not check up on potential loafers.

"There are good business reasons for using it," a representative for the group said. "But it must be coupled with a very robust privacy policy."

News.com's Michael Kanellos and Ed Frauenheim contributed to this report.