Business / #ForbesBusiness



February 20, 2019,   10:17 AM

The 'Father Of GPS' Really Doesn’t Like Having His Location Tracked

Parmy Olson

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About 40 years ago, when Brad Parkinson and his team of civil engineers were putting together the first specifications for a radar signal called GPS, he sketched out some predictions of how their new technology might be used in the future. One of his charts, drawn on plain paper in 1978, showed a navigation system for cars. 

Another also correctly showed machines that could autonomously monitor crop fields. But one use case he didn’t foresee: companies exploiting the system to quietly track hundreds of million of people through their smartphones.

“I don’t like that at all,” he told Forbes on Tuesday, after receiving the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering in London, which he shared with three other engineers. “It’s not that I’m doing something that is illegal—I just don’t like the idea of continuously being tracked by anybody.” 

Many companies have capitalized on GPS to quietly track our locations. A recent New York Times investigation found that 75 companies received anonymous, precise location data from apps, and several of those companies claimed to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the U.S. Some of the apps were tracking people’s locations to within a few yards, thousands of times a day.

A separate investigation by Motherboard showed in January that bail bond companies also bought location data from AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint to track down court defendants.  

In the late 1970s Parkinson played the lead role in developing, designing and testing the first Global Positioning System that's still used today, and has been dubbed the "Father of GPS."

The system, developed with engineers James Spilker, Hugo Fruehauf, and Richard Schwartz, works by harnessing a network of about 24 satellites that are synched up to ground control stations and receiving devices. Each time someone uses GPS to figure out the position of a device, signals from at least four satellites work together to determine a receiver’s velocity, time and three-dimensional position to within two meters.  

GPS has clearly had other, arguably more positive impacts on humanity. Organizers behind the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering pointed to the way it had been used to guide humanitarian supplies into war drop zones, helped farmers improve crop yields with so-called precision farming and helped regular people get from A to B without a paper map.

But John Browne, the former chief executive of BP and chairman of the Queen Elizabeth prize, said most engineering advances had unintended consequences. “And unintended is without a doubt an invasion of privacy,” he told Forbes

Parkinson doesn't take issue with the way large technology companies often justify why they track people’s locations: to serve more “relevant” ads. “But you have to have my permission to enable it,” he said. 

“I have about eight charts that I hand-drew in 1978 that were my vision, and they included the [self-driving] car application. I had the voice. I had the turns,” said Parkinson. “There were a set of things I could personally envision… but there were a whole set of things that I couldn’t.



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