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'Location Privacy' Threatens to Emerge as a Major Fleet Issue

July 7, 2008, by Mike Antich - Also by this author

 By Mike Antich One of the wisest observations ever made to me about predictingthe future direction of fleet management was by Jim Noonan, then-vice presidentat PHH. In a wide-ranging phone conversation, Jim told me that if you wanted toidentify the next big trends in fleet management, you need to look outside ourindustry. He said that fleet is not an innovator of trends; however, it is usuallyan early adopter. Since that conversation (in the mid-1980s), I often reflecton Jim’s words and have watched one industry trend after another support hishypothesis. One example is outsourcing, which started in the IT industry, butquickly swept the commercial fleet world in the late 1980s. Another example wasWeb-enabled transactional and management systems, which were literally adoptedovernight by fleet in the late 1990s.

Since that conversation, I spend much time followingnon-fleet-related trends to see how they may ultimately find applicability andsynergy in fleet management, in particular, technological trends. I believe technology,such as telematics, will radically alter our industry – changing fleetmanagement from an art to a science. However, I recognize that employee resistanceto “Big Brother” technology continues to impede widespread adoption.

Collision Between Privacy & Technology

As OEMs and third-party providers install a broader range of telematicdevices in future model-year vehicles, fleets (and drivers) will be morereceptive to the efficacy of telematics in managing assets. Paralleling this isthe ubiquity of portable hand-held devices with the ability to pinpoint thelocation of individuals and reveal it to others. These devices produce a “digitalbread crumb” where everyday activities and movements of individuals can betraced and recorded. This makes some people nervous. As such, I believe “locationprivacy” has a strong potential to become a hot-button societal issue in thenext decade. The points of controversy focus on privacy infringement andpotential abuse due to the pervasiveness of GPS-based products and services. Thelong-term implications frighten many privacy advocates. Unfortunately, Ibelieve fleet management will be swept up into this controversy. I predict thisissue will first emerge in the EU, which has stronger privacy laws than the U.S., before it migrates across the Atlantic via multinational companies operating in theNAFTA region.

Location information is a set of data describing an individual’slocation over a period of time. Location information is sensitive private datafor many reasons. Without the ability to control the collection of locationinformation, individuals may lose the privacy safeguards currently afforded byother federal and state laws. For example, location information revealsphysical destinations, such as medical clinics or government services buildings,which may imply additional information about an individual. For instance, theinformation implied from location data may reveal other indirect information,such as a person’s health condition, which is protected by laws limiting accessto such data.

Another interesting (albeit obvious) observation is the Web oftoday will not be the Web of tomorrow. One scenario is that the Internet willevolve into a virtual global sensor network, with the ability to pinpoint, ondemand, the location of any person or Web-enabled object. For instance, if Bluetoothis turned on, a cell phone can see and be seen by other Bluetooth devices. Insome cases, location identification is passive. For example, the iPhone has anaccelerometer that determines whether you are sitting or walking. You don’t haveto use the phone; it’s just measured.

Just as we use data miningtoday to extract useful information from a sea of data, we will be able to minegeographic information system data. The term used to describe this technologyis “reality mining.” The MIT TechnologyReview called reality mining one of the 10 technologies most likely to changethe way we live and work. In essence, reality mining is the large-scale miningof “activity data” collected via GPS systems embedded in a multiplicity of portabledevices. (There are more than 2.8 billion active cell phones in use today.) Thepioneer of reality mining is Dr. Alex (Sandy)Pentland, a computer scientist at MIT, who predicts it will be used in a widevariety of applications. Besides employee productivity and route optimization programs,this technology has far broader applications in healthcare, product marketing, retailing,advertising, law enforcement/homeland security, etc. Despite data anonymity safeguards,privacy advocates promise to be vocal (and litigious) opponents to thesetechnological advances.

Invalidating Conditions of Employment

At some companies, acquiescing to location tracking is a conditionof employment if you wish to be assigned a company-provided vehicle. However,what happens when corporate mandates collide with personal liberties? When adjudicated,court rulings always supersede any condition of employment.

Let me know what you think.

[email protected]


  1. 1. anne1 [ July 10, 2008 @ 10:02AM ]

    Thank you for a thoughtful and insightful article regarding location privacy issues and their potential impact on fleet management.

    Hopefully companies will take steps to address the issues themselves by adopting policies that respect employee privacy. This includes, but is not limited to, notifying employees when GPS devices are being utilized, what is being traced, and enabling the employee to turn off the device when not on company time, etc.

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Mike Antich

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Mike Antich has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and was inducted in the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

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