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NO Big Brother!

Big Brother Tactics Showcase Dark Side of Technology Use

Rent a Car? Look UP!

by Jim Bray

A recent "Big Brother" episode has the potential to color one's opinions of the benefits of technology, but I sure hope it doesn't.

It's the now well-publicized episode about a Connecticut rental car company that used the Global Positioning Satellites to perform a Big Brother act on some of its customers, a move that had at least one customer up in arms enough to have launched a lawsuit over the incident.

Now, I'm not going to name names here; in the Grand Scheme of Things they don't matter, and there has been enough publicity about the incident that the public will take whatever action it deems necessary and that's as it should be. Besides, I have an aversion to hiring lawyers…

Anyway, this rental car agency apparently routinely uses GPS to monitor its cars, supposedly so it can track down any of its vehicles that get stolen. That's a reasonable precaution to my mind; they have every right to take care of their own property and GPS is a good tool for helping them do that.

Unfortunately, this company also decided it could use its eyes in the sky to keep tabs on the cars while they're being rented, and thereby charge customers for so-called "dangerous" conduct.

The issue came to light when one particular customer took the company to small claims court. What rubbed him the wrong way was when, after having paid for his rental car with his debit card, his next bank statement showed that the renal car company had scooped an extra $450 dollars from his account.

Why? Well, when he went to them for an explanation, they supposedly pointed out on a map where the GPS system showed that he had exceeded the company's "maximum speed threshold" of 79 mph. That presumably met their criteria for dangerous conduct.

Now, I'm not going to get into a long discussion of the merits - or demerits - of speeding here. The speeding isn't the point. Besides, so-called dangerous conduct is in the eye of the beholder. While many people would argue that speed kills, I'd argue that there are far more dangerous habits than speeding. I'm referring to people who drive constantly in the passing lane, who don't signal their turns, who jabber into their cell phones while at speed, who cruise along blissfully unaware of the road conditions and traffic around them - who drive unsafe vehicles at any speed, or who are just plain bad drivers.

The point is, at least to this liberty-minded individual, that while the company is perfectly within its rights to want to protect its vehicles, enforcing the speed laws isn't the mandate of a rental car company. Besides, if the vehicle was returned in good condition, where was the need for protection?

Perhaps if the customer had totaled the car while on a rampage along the interstate the company would have good reason to go back over its GPS records later, looking for clues - but in this case the car presumably didn't suffer any damage at all. So what's the problem?

No, it smacks more of social engineering than anything else and don't we have enough institutions more than willing to do that for us already?

What's next? Are rental car companies going to use GPS to ensure their cars aren't driven constantly in the passing lane, and fine drivers who don't comply? Will they put sensors into vehicles to monitor signal light use?

It isn't the GPS technology that's at fault. I applaud the company's stated reason that it uses GPS to track down stolen vehicles. Fair enough, it's their livelihood. What we have here, however, is a case of technology being used for the wrong reasons, and that's a dangerous move that could help give the technology itself a bad name.

Technology, after all, is neither good nor bad; it just is. It's how technology is used that matters, and that's a human factor that has nothing to do with the technology itself. After all, you can use explosives to help build a road or to destroy innocent lives; it isn't the explosives that are responsible but the people who are using them.

Let's hope this ugly incident doesn't color people's opinions of the benefits that can be derived Global Positioning Satellites. That would be a shame.


Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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