Snooping by GPS

April 10, 2008|By MIKE HIMOWITZ

Most GPS devices tell you where you are and how to get where you're going. But there are other uses for global positioning technology - such as keeping track of other people and safeguarding your possessions.

Consider the gadget I've been testing for the past few days. It is a bit smaller than a paperback book, and if you hide it in the trunk of your car - or someone else's - you can log onto a Web site and call up a map showing exactly where your car is. Or where it has been, and how fast it was going at the time.

It is no surprise that the manufacturer calls the device "GPS Snitch." That is exactly what it does, and remarkably well, if you are willing to part with $400 for the Snitch itself and at least $15 a month for the privilege of snooping with it.

You can use the Snitch as a security device to alert you when someone tries to make off with your car - and then track its location while you call the cops. That makes it a competitor to the LoJack, a radio-based anti-theft gadget that has been around for years.

Anxious parents can use the Snitch to track a teenager's comings and goings ("Don't tell me you were at the library, kid. The Snitch says you drove to the pool hall. And you were speeding on the way!")

If you have a particularly nasty turn of mind, you have made the next logical connection - the Snitch is the perfect high-tech snooping tool for suspicious husbands, wives and lovers. And for narcissists who want everyone to know where they are, there is a social networking component that allows friends to locate one another's Snitches on demand.

At this point, I'll concede a certain ambivalence about this gadget. I have no qualms about using it to help recover stolen property, or to keep track of a forgetful, elderly relative's car.

But its very name - Snitch - sounds like a New York Post headline about an informant inside the Gotti family. If nothing else, the name implies that we are so used to having our privacy invaded that we are willing to invade someone else's without a second thought.

And with that in mind, and in hopes that if you buy one of these devices it is for the right reasons, I will continue.

Manufactured by Blackline GPS Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, the Snitch occupies the intersection of two technologies. One is the Global Positioning System - the array of U.S. government satellites that enables people around the world to locate themselves precisely with cheap receivers, including some cell phones. The other technology is the cellular telephone network itself.

Snitch uses GPS technology to locate itself and the cellular phone system to chat with Blackline's servers - which relay commands from you to the Snitch and pass the Snitch's exact location back to you.

To set up a Snitch, all you have to do is charge it for several hours - preferably on a window sill where it can glom onto a handful of GPS satellites - and then register the unit online with Blackline's Web site.

Blackline's pricing model is similar to a wireless carrier's text messaging scheme - a monthly fee for a specific number of "tracking credits." Every time you ask a Snitch for its location, you use a credit, so even if you buy credits in bulk, don't expect to use the Snitch for the kind of continuous tracking that a personal GPS mapping device provides.

The least expensive package is $15 a month for 50 credits, which amounts to less than two location requests a day. A better deal is $18 a month for 150 credits, and there are more extensive bundles, too.

Once the Snitch is charged and registered, turn the power on and place it in whatever vehicle you want to track (the trunk of my car worked fine). By logging onto Blackline's Web site, you can enter a request for location at any time: The service will find the Snitch if it is online and report its location on a Google Map. In my tests, under normal conditions (with decent exposure to the sky), it was highly accurate.

But the Snitch's best feature, from my standpoint, is its ability to alert you if someone tries to move your car (or boat, or airplane). Once you've "armed" it by pushing a button on the front panel or sending a command online, the Snitch will send you an e-mail or flash a text message to your cell phone when it detects motion, and then send another alert if the car moves more than 200 feet from its parked location.

Blackline offers a variety of tracking options, including one that automatically records the Snitch's position every five minutes once an alert has been sounded. You also can schedule a tracking session for a particular time period and control the frequency of updates (with the proviso that each one uses a credit, of course).

The Web site displays the results of a tracking session on a Google map or as a 3-D journey in Google Earth. Clicking on any tracking point shows the car's direction and speed at the time - while an advanced option provides altitude and exact latitude and longitude. There is also a tracking program for Web-equipped Blackberry pagers.

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