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Adam Irby
CST 300 Writing Lab
18 February 2018
GPS Tracking Devices

With the widespread popularity of mobile devices with Global Positioning System (GPS)

capabilities, users of those devices can get step-by-step directions to almost anywhere on the

planet. Users can also leverage this same GPS technology to locate a lost device with the click of

a button. Due to the trackability of these devices, there is the potential that someone else could

be tracking that device with or without the owner’s consent. This poses the questions of the use

of GPS enabled devices by third parties, and whether or not GPS technology should be included

in so many devices due to the risks to privacy for the consumer.

Carrying GPS enabled devices is convenient for personal use, as well as vital for use in

emergency situations. GPS navigation capabilities are extremely useful to have because people

no longer have to know exactly where their destination is, pull out a map, and determine their

route. Now people can just type the address into their phones and receive directions to their

destination in real time. This had made traveling to new destinations easier, arrival on time more

reliable, and the process of planning much less stressful. In addition to enabling travel, GPS has

facilitated in the tracking of people in need such as those with mental disabilities, small children,

or missing and possibly injured people. Emergency responders and family members have been

able to leverage GPS devices on these individuals to determine their location and bring them

home or to a place of refuge safely.

These same GPS enabled devices however, can also be used against the person carrying

the device. Due to the trackable nature of GPS, the device can be tracked without the user’s

knowledge by unknown third parties or even by government and law enforcement agencies. This
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tracking can sometimes be without warrant or probable cause. This is because it is still a

relatively new technology so the definition of the law surrounding these devices is vague. The

laws and regulations overseeing this are still being evaluated and changed to determine the reach

entities such as businesses and government agencies can have in relation to GPS tracking. In

addition to the growing concerns with third party monitoring, companies that provide the GPS

services can record and even sell the data collected from its use. At this time, this data is owned

by the GPS companies providing the service, and there are few restrictions on them selling

personal data of others.

Ethical Considerations for GPS Enabled Devices

There are multiple considerations that come with GPS enabled devices, each with its pros

and cons. Some of these ethical considerations arise from tracking the GPS enabled device

without the owner’s consent and the use of GPS as a service for navigation that can result in

personal information being sold to third parties. These issues have the potential to both benefit

and harm those who use the devices, be it in making their lives easier and safer or by invading

the user’s privacy and infringing on an individual’s rights as a citizen.

Tracking Without Users Consent.

The tracking of GPS devices without the user’s consent has been used as a service to

people and to society. As reported by Lovett (2014), in 2014 a woman named Sarah Maguire

realized her iPhone was missing after going out one night. She was able to use the “Find My

iPhone” application the next morning to see that the phone had been stolen and was located 30

miles away. After tracking her phone and determining the exact location, Maguire went to

confront the thief, who did not know they were being tracked, and was able to recover her stolen
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phone (Lovett, 2014). Without the GPS tracking capability on her phone, it would be unlikely

that she would have known that the phone had been stolen and would have been unable to

recover it.

USA Today (2015) reported the same “Find My iPhone” application was also used in

2015 when a Georgia Tech student named James Hubert went missing after a party. James’

friends were able to use the “Find My iPhone” application to see where his phone was, and in

turn locate James who was found barely conscious seven miles away. Because he was able to be

found so quickly, he was able to get the medical attention he needed for hypothermia and other

injuries (USA Today, 2015). GPS is also used by law enforcement to track sex offenders, gang

members, and other high-risk individuals to help prevent them from re-offending and to ensure

those being tracked do not go where they are forbidden from going in the interest of public safety

(Division of Adult Parole Operations Electrionic Monitoring, n.d.).

Due to the role GPS plays in helping people and protecting society, it can be looked at

through the ethical frameworks of utilitarianism and common good. Utilitarianism is an ethical

theory that considers the benefit of those involved to determine if an action is considered ethical

or not (Utilitarianism, n.d.). According to Bonde and Firenze (2013) at Brown University, the

idea of utilitarianism was developed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus of Samos.

Epicurus applied utilitarianism to consider what brought the least amount of distress to determine

what was ethical. Utilitarianism was later modified by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham to

determine ethical choices to be good or bad depending on if they brought the person pleasure or

pain instead of what caused the least distress. This version of utilitarianism was later modified

once again by his student John Stuart Mill who evaluated what brought the most happiness

instead of the most pleasure to be more subjective and less materialistic (Bonde & Firenze,
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2013). The common good approach was developed by the Greek philosophers Plato and

Aristotle, and later modified by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to determine if

something is ethical based on how it benefits the community as a whole (Bonde & Firenze,

2013). Based on this, an action that benefits many people is considered ethically good. GPS is a

great benefit in finding and recovering stolen property and locating people in need.

There are also downsides to the ability to track someone’s device without their

knowledge. As reported by Crump (2011), law enforcement officers placed a GPS tracker on

Antoine Jones’ car without his knowledge. The police then continuously tracked his location for

a month afterwards to determine if he was involved in any illegal drug activities. The GPS

tracking device was placed on Jones’ car without the law enforcement officers obtaining a legal

warrant (Crump, 2011). According to Meyer (2015), normally probable cause must be provided

to a judge to receive a warrant to search or arrest a person who is suspected of committing a

crime, but with GPS tracking, the rules are much more relaxed. To track the GPS location of

someone who is suspected of committing a crime, law enforcement officers only need to be able

to show reasonable suspicion that the individual is involved in an illegal activity. This is a much

lower legal standard than probable cause and allows law enforcement officers and government

officials to bypass the stricter legal standards that protect citizens’ rights (Meyer, 2015). Law

enforcement officers do not even have to place GPS tracking devices on people or their vehicles,

they are able to access the GPS locations of people’s cell phones to track them as well (Crump,


Another concern of GPS tracking without the person’s knowledge is the ability to track

others when they do not need to be tracked. There are benefits to tracking those that are higher

risk, such as small children and those with disabilities, but problems can arise when people start
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tracking those who are not at risk (RMT, 2014). When tracking a person who is not at risk, it is

an invasion of that person’s privacy with no benefit to that person. The ethical rightness of the

unknowing tracking of individuals by the government, law enforcement agencies, and others can

be the rights approach and the fairness or justice approach to ethics.

The rights approach to ethics states that “the best ethical action is that which protects the

ethical rights of those who are affected by the action. It emphasizes the belief that all humans

have the right to dignity” (Bonde & Firenze, 2013). In tracking an individual without their

knowledge, it is an invasion of their privacy and in turn is encroaching on their dignity, thus

making the action unethical. The rights approach is derived from the philosopher Immanuel

Kant’s idea that if the intention behind an action is good, then the action is ethical no matter the

outcome (Bonde & Firenze, 2013). The fairness or justice approach is derived from the

combination of the rights approach and the Law Code of Hammurabi in Ancient Mesopotamia

which states “all free men should be treated alike” (Bonde & Firenze, 2013). American

philosopher John Rawls combined the two ideas into the fairness or justice approach to argue

that “ethical principles are those that would be chosen by free and rational people in an initial

situation of equality. This hypothetical contract is considered fair or just because it provides a

procedure for what counts as fair action” (Bonde & Firenze, 2013). Because GPS tracking is not

held to the same standards of other types of investigations that require probable cause to be

proven to obtain a warrant, it is unethical.

GPS as a Service.

GPS enabled devices can also be used for personal use. GPS navigation services can

provide up to date directions that consider current traffic patterns to plot out the most efficient

route to get from one place to another. This makes traveling much easier and less stressful for the
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driver. When looked at through ethical egoism, the use of GPS for this purpose is ethical.

Ethical egoism states that if an action benefits the user, then that action is ethical. This approach

was developed by ancient Greek Sophists, such as Thrasymachus, and was later supported by

philosophers like Thomas Hobbes (Bonde & Firenze, 2013).

When GPS navigation is provided for the users, the providers will collect the travel data

of the users and sell that information. As reported by Waterfield (2011), in 2011 the GPS

provider TomTom sold the data it collected while providing navigational service to local

authorities. Local authorities then used that information to target drivers in specific areas where

speeding was recorded to occur at a higher rate than other areas (Waterfield, 2011). As reported

by Bonde and Firenze (2013) this collection of user’s data is seen as unethical when looked at

through the rights approach of ethics. The invasion of privacy that resulted from the tracking and

collection of data without the user’s knowledge and selling their personal information without

their approval diminishes their dignity (Bonde & Firenze, 2013).

Students Position and Conclusion

The use of GPS enabled devices have both benefits and risks associated with them. The

use of GPS navigation is an invaluable tool to get the most efficient directions from one point to

another and to greatly reduce the stress of traveling and learning how to get to new places. The

ability to use GPS to locate and recover missing or stolen property is also of great value to the

end user. The ability to monitor those who have shown to be a risk to themselves and the public

benefits society as it ensures the safety of the many while also helping to prevent high risk

individuals from repeating unethical behavior. This is further supported by the ability to use GPS

to locate people in need. This is especially critical in situations where the time required to locate

the person can mean life or death. In addition, ease of tracking is of great value to their loved
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ones and to the people dedicating their resources searching for them. Because of this, the benefits

associated with the use of GPS enabled devices far outweigh the possible negative uses of those


Laws and regulations are in the works to help mitigate the risks associated with unethical

use of GPS devices. In California, it is now illegal to “use an electronic tracking device to

determine the location or movement of a person” without their consent to be tracked (California

Penal Code § 637.7). This still does not apply to “lawful use of an electronic tracking device by

law enforcements agencies [sic]” (California Penal Code § 637.7). A bill has also been

introduced to the United States Congress House of Representatives that proposes to make it

“unlawful to intentionally intercept the geolocation information of another person” on a national

level, as opposed to leaving that decision to the state governments (H.R.1062 - GPS Act, n.d.).

Along with these examples, more laws and regulations should continue to be put into place to

ensure the ethical use of GPS tracking devices.
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Bonde, S., & Firenze, P. (2013, May). A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions. Retrieved



California Penal Code § 637.7.

Crump, C. (2011, November 7). How GPS Tracking Threatens Our Privacy. Retrieved from

Division of Adult Parole Operations Electrionic Monitoring. (n.d.). Retrieved from

H.R.1062 - GPS Act. (n.d.). Retrieved from


Lovett, I. (2014, May 3). When Hitting ‘Find My iPhone’ Takes You to a Thief’s Doorstep.

Retrieved from


Meyer, R. (2015, August 8). Do Police Need a Warrant to See Where a Phone Is? Retrieved



RMT. (2014, January 7). Is There an Ethical Problem with Child GPS Tracking? Retrieved from

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USA Today. (2015, October 20). Friends find missing Ga. student hurt, but alive. Retrieved from


Utilitarianism. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Waterfield, B. (2011, April 28). Tom Tom sold driver's GPS details to be used by police for

speed traps. Retrieved from