The smaller GPS trackers become, the greater their potential to become a legal football, passed between lawmakers and the judicial system of our country. We’ve already seen this battle begun in the contexts of law enforcement and employer-employee relations, and some people believe the next big GPS argument will center on tracking family members.

GPS Can Undoubtedly Save Vulnerable Lives

istock_000010367195xsmall-200x300A tiny GPS tracker can give worried family members a way to secretly, unobtrusively, and safely monitor each other’s locations. The person being tracked could be a child headed to preschool for the first time; a preteen with unpredictable actions due to autism; a teenager who might be tempted to misuse the family car; a spouse who is suspected of cheating; or an elderly parent with dementia. Clearly, some of these situations are ethically questionable, but it is hard to argue with a person’s right to track their children or vulnerable elderly parents.

For a moment, let’s set aside the question of tracking people to catch them doing something wrong. Instead, let’s focus on safety-related tracking. Across the U.S. and in developed countries around the world, local police forces are encouraging people to start using GPS trackers with their children and seniors. Each time a senior wanders from home or an autistic child disappears from their house, police devote time and manpower toward finding them. If they could simply follow the tracker’s signal, they could find the missing person immediately—or the family could do the same and avoid contacting the police altogether.

Why Object?

Some groups are pushing back against the use of GPS trackers even for safety purposes. Admittedly, this is a small movement—most people acknowledge that it is fully ethical for a family to monitor the activity of its vulnerable members, even without their consent. However, the objectors look ahead to potential problems that could arise, such as:

  • Tracking a senior who does not have dementia, thereby infringing on his privacy
  • Monitoring the activity of an adult child without their knowledge
  • Tracking a child who has been placed in the custody of someone else by the state

motheranddaughter-300x199The objections to potential issues should not dissuade families who believe that GPS tracking can protect those they love who are in danger of wandering off. Time is one of the most critical factors when trying to recover a missing person, especially in extreme temperatures or bad weather. A GPS signal dramatically reduces the amount of time needed to track down a wanderer, not to mention the number of searchers needed.

Other Purposes

It’s easier to understand the objections that people raise when the purpose for tracking another person is questionable. In recent years, U.S. judges have ruled on a number of cases:

Year Court Question at Issue Verdict
2012 U.S. Supreme Court Can police track a suspected criminal without his knowledge? Not without a search warrant
2013 New York State Court of Appeals Can an employer track an employee without his knowledge to find out if he is lying about working? Not if the tracking extends beyond work hours
2009 Court of Appeal of California Can the state track a juvenile offender while on probation? Yes
2011 New Jersey Appellate Court Can a wife secretly place a tracker in her husband’s car? Yes, but complicating factors could affect legality

In general, people should be careful about secretly tracking spouses, adult children, relatives, and acquaintances who themselves have a right to privacy. And they should always remember that, if they are tracking someone in order to try to gain evidence against them in court, that evidence will probably be thrown out unless it is supported by a search warrant. There is even a possibility that the defendant in such a case would turn it around and sue the plaintiff for breach of privacy.

The Horizon of GPS Tracking for Safety

While courts and lawmakers work to determine exactly where the line between legal and illegal tracking lies, it seems clear that GPS tracking products for keeping vulnerable people safe will become more common, smaller, and easier to use. Additional features that could help accomplish this goal include an alert system that would notify family members if the individual crossed a designated boundary; miniature trackers that could be embedded in eyeglasses or clothing; and linked communication devices that could allow family members to speak to the individual as soon as they begin wandering away.

As in many areas of family life, open communication can defuse many of the potential privacy problems with GPS tracking. A teen who knows the family car is equipped with a GPS tracker is likely to drive it responsibly. Children who know their parents are watching their cell phone location signal will probably not take side trips on their way home from school. And an honest conversation with an elderly loved one may be enough to convince her that that wearing a GPS tracker will help keep her safe, even if she does not suffer from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

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