GPS Tracking Apps Test Privacy Boundaries

By | March 10, 2015

IJet International released apps in December on Android and January on iOS that can track travelers using global positioning system capabilities. The app brings to the everyday smartphone a level of realtime tracking traditionally available only through expensive satellite-based devices. Typically only used in high-risk environments, the Critical Trac app still is not a “mass-market product.” Nevertheless, officials said the app already has a “rapid uptake.”

“If you’re sending people to places like Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s prudent to provide realtime tracking so we know where you are relative to all the potential threats happening around you,” said iJet International senior vice president Charlie Terry. App users can start and stop when program managers track them. Terry said that while having every step tracked is a bit “freaky,” the traveler’s last known position can be critical information in an emergency.

GPS“So far, the folks who have implemented it understand why it’s needed and they actually want someone to know where they are,” he said.

The Anvil Group, based in London, a year ago released similar functionality in its SOS & Locate app. It’s popular among female travelers and useful for risky situations, said group managing director Matthew Judge. “That doesn’t necessarily mean because of the country,” he said. “It could be due to the type of work they’re performing or the message that the meeting they’re attending is sending. Or someone is crossing an international border for a short time. Or a VIP who doesn’t want a visible security presence.”

As an alternative to live tracking, iJet users can turn on intermittent tracking centered around automated wellness checks. The notion of these check-ins is commonplace among other apps and with travel management providers. Removing the constant data uploads and downloads saves on device battery usage. A traveler may be asked to respond to a text message or other notification in a certain amount of time. If they don’t, providers can let the employer know or take action depending on protocols.

The Anvil app also has both active (live tracking) and passive (intermittent signaling) modes, controlled by the user. Most clients use passive as the default setting, Judge said.

“Mobile tracking does raise a number of complications, such as data privacy issues,” according to a February paper by BCD Travel that recommended GPS tracking for high-risk destinations. “In some countries, you will need consent from employees to track them. It may be best to create special policy rules about GPS tracking, such as switching on mobile tracking only in emergencies or for trips to high-risk destinations.”

A related approach is geofencing, which creates a territory beyond which a traveler’s presence sends an alert. “Charlie went into two bars in Hong Kong — probably not a surprise,” Terry joked. “But he went to that neighborhood? Alert!”

When BCD Travel in November surveyed more than 500 travel managers, about one in ten said their firms use GPS tracking and twice as many expected it to be in use by November 2015. More than 30 percent are or are about to start using wellness checks. Almost four in five already “enforce designated booking channels” so they know the travelers’ intentions.

Watching “swipe reports” from credit card companies also can help employers locate their people. That technology isn’t yet widely available, according to the BCD Travel paper. “It may be an option if you have consolidated with just one or a very small number of card providers and your preferred provider(s) have developed the necessary reporting, including cleansed and geo-coded merchant records.”

American Express Global Business Travel developed such functionality in partnership with American Express Company.

“In a crisis, incomplete itinerary information and spotty cellular and data connections can thwart travel managers’ attempts to locate and provide care to their employees,” GBT noted in a summer 2014 announcement. “This functionality allows travel managers or company security teams to view an integrated representation of a traveler’s itinerary information and recent American Express Corporate Card transactions to help pinpoint their location during an emergency situation.” Once companies locate their travelers, they can use the TMC’s disruption management tool to coordinate communications.

Having your card swipe data collected may seem less intrusive than GPS tracking, but there still are privacy issues to work out.

American Express GBT vice president, digital traveler, Evan Konwiser said clients consent at the enterprise level. Individual travelers can opt out. Event triggers can determine when clients need data. “You can say, ‘This person with the right credentials decided there’s an emergency.’ They can get access to a traveler’s data in a given situation,” Konwiser explained. “Outside the agreed parameters, that data isn’t shared at all. We’re only keeping the information for 24 hours.”

Asked about live GPS tracking, Konwiser said, “We don’t have an official position on that today. There are definitely some use cases where that data would provide utility. We get a lot of cautionary tales on that — there are a lot of government regulations. We’re not going to break the rules and ask for forgiveness later.”

No Replacement For Intel And Ops

GPS tracking may be more than you need. “Even the not-so-granular tracking” based on plans and check-ins “is very granular,” said iJet’s Terry. “Not everyone is trying to do business in Iraq.”

More important than how employees are tracked is offering a complete solution. Tracking doesn’t eliminate the need for good preparation and response.

“Employers should absolutely use the power of technology to ensure the safety of their employees and executives,” said former U.S. Army Special Forces medic and Travel Recon founder Toby Houchens. “Even with big-brother type tech, you can’t assume your employees will stay ‘on the path.’ This is why initial information is imperative: neighborhoods to avoid, nearby emergency services, crime rates, reoccurring threats, characteristics criminals look for, etc.”

“There are lots of tracking apps out there,” said iJet senior product manager Elisa Velarde. “The app is useful but the beauty of it is what our global operations team does. They know the hot spots, safe zones, transit, exit, entry … the dam that was taken by hostile folks.”

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