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Geo Slavery




IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003 47

Jerome E. Dobson and Peter F. Fisher
eographic information sys-
tems (GIS) technologies,
including Location Based Ser-
vices (LBS) continuously fed
by earth coordinate data
streams derived from the
Global Positioning System (GPS),
recently have given rise to new con-
sumer products advertised for
tracking humans as well as animals.
Heretofore, GIS has raised public
concerns about information priva-
cy, primarily due to its capacity for
rapid integration of spatial informa-
tion and personal information from
diverse sources [1]-[3]. Human
tracking devices, however, intro-
duce a new potential for real-time
control that extends far beyond pri-
vacy and surveillance, per se. As a
result, society must contemplate a
new form of slavery characterized
by location control [4]. Geoslavery
now looms as a real, immediate,
and global threat [5].
Commercial vendors of human
tracking systems, naturally, tout
benefits and diminish, dismiss, or
deny any potential for abuse.
Indeed, the benefits of LBS are
myriad, and human tracking is not
all bad. Mountaineers, for exam-
ple, can have the assurance that, if
they have an accident while climb-
ing, one call will alert an emer-
gency service and report almost
precisely where they are. As with
many other information technolo-
gies, however, there are tradeoffs
between physical security and per-
sonal safety, on the one hand, and
privacy and personal freedom on
the other. Hence, the countless
benefits of LBS are countered by
social hazards unparalleled in
human history. Here we explore
possibilities for mis-use that many
would consider unethical.
Our principal objectives are to
forewarn the public, foster debate,
and propose remedies. We focus
primarily on hazards, reasoning
that benefits get more than their due
from commercial advertising, while
hazards are ignored by vendors
and, all too often, by public offi-
cials, as well. We describe the tech-
nologies and cite current products
to demonstrate that the dangers are
real, not imaginary as some “Big
Brother” bugaboos have been in the
past. We illustrate the danger
through realistic scenarios of poten-
tial enslavement applications. We
advocate a rational response that
acknowledges the benefits and
inevitability of adoption along with
an overwhelming need for safe-
guards. Finally, we propose a reme-
dy that may prevent the most egre-
gious abuses while, simultaneously,
preserving most benefits.
Geoslavery is defined here as a
practice in which one entity, the
master, coercively or surreptitious-
ly monitors and exerts control over
the physical location of another
Jerome Dobson is a Research
Professor at the University of
Kansas, Lawrence, KS; email dobson Peter Fisher is a Professor
of Geographical Information at the
University of Leicester, United King-
dom; email: [email protected].
dobson 2/25/03 1:06 PM Page 47
48 IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003
individual, the slave. Inherent in
this concept is the potential for a
master to routinely control time,
location, speed, and direction for
each and every movement of the
slave or, indeed, of many slaves
simultaneously. Enhanced surveil-
lance and control may be attained
through complementary monitor-
ing of functional indicators such as
body temperature, heart rate, and
It is possible to monitor people
and exert behavioral control manu-
ally, as slavemasters have done for
centuries, or visually, as George
Orwell imagined in 1984 [6]. The
key to widespread adoption, uni-
versal coverage, and exceptional
precision, today, lies in recent
advances of electronic information
Human tracking systems, cur-
rently sold commercially without
restriction, already empower those
who would be masters, and safe-
guards have not yet evolved to pro-
tect those destined to become
slaves. Current products freely
exploit the GPS and other digital
information offered as a public
good, but no government has yet
established any specific statutes or
regulations restricting their use.
Three current technologies can
be combined to enable one person
to monitor and control the actions
of one or many other individuals. A
miniature GPS receiver implanted
in or attached to a person can con-
tinuously record that person’s loca-
tion. A miniature radio transmitter
can report that person’s location to
anyone else with a radio receiver
tuned to the proper frequency. A
GIS can accept the continuous
stream of incoming geo-coordi-
nates and plot the person’s every
movement in real time. The GIS
can readily relate these individual
movements to streets, roads, and
buildings and to the movements of
other individuals. Anyone operat-
ing the GIS can follow these move-
ments in real time or retrospective-
ly for as long as data are retained.
Inexpensive human track-
ing systems that com-
bine these three tech-
nologies are now
commercially available
and widely marketed.
Individual units current-
ly sell for less than $300.
In addition to geo-
location through GPS,
mobile phones already
are capable of providing
location information of
variable precision
depending on the density
of transmitters. Indeed, the next
generation of mobile phones will
be far more accurate due to
Enhanced Observed Time Differ-
ence (E-OTD) as part of the G3
standard, or will be linked to GPS.
In the United Kingdom location
information from the current gen-
eration of mobile phones has
achieved prominence in a recent
high profile criminal case, when
the accused in the Damilola Taylor
murder trial were acquitted partly
on the telling evidence that mobile
phones associated with them were
used 2.4 miles away within 3 min-
utes of the report of the murder.
The Crown Prosecution Service
seems to have been unprepared for
this defense, and offered no refuta-
tion or contrary arguments. This
evidence was available from com-
pletely standard mobile phones of
the current generation.
Employed coercively or surrep-
titiously, LBS products clearly
constitute an invasion of privacy,
employing surveillance technolo-
gies well beyond those envisioned
in 1984 [6]. As Orwell warned,
however, surveillance can confer
control. Anyone monitoring the
tracking system can exert control
over the person being tracked by
reprimanding or otherwise punish-
ing the person in near real time or
retrospectively at the end of each
day, week, or year.
Only one other technology is
necessary to enforce real-time con-
trol. Simply add a transponder that
receives a radio command from the
master and instantaneously shocks,
stings, burns, or otherwise punish-
es the slave. The technical feasibil-
ity of two-way LBS has been
proven. One human-tracking
device comes with a remote-con-
trol lock, and another commercial
product (not advertised for human
tracking) comes with a GPS receiv-
er and two-way radio combined in
a single hand-held unit.
Thus, the master could pre-
scribe a path in the GIS, the slave’s
spatial location could be transmit-
ted continuously to the GIS, and
software could be set to recognize
any instance in which the slave’s
coordinates depart from the pre-
scribed path. If the slave were to
transgress, a command could be
transmitted instantaneously to the
transponder, which would adminis-
ter punishment. The result would
be an electronic form of geoslav-
ery, equivalent to a human robot.
To our knowledge, no human-ori-
ented product currently takes this
fateful step, but a human version
would pose no greater technical
challenge than those of similar sys-
tems used on animals today.
This scenario is particularly
chilling in the light of the news that
rats have been trained to be remote-
ly controlled for navigating mazes
and other location-based activities.
The control is achieved by direct
electronic stimulation of the brain
Society must contemplate a new
form of slavery, characterized
by location control.
dobson 2/25/03 1:08 PM Page 48
from up to 500 m [7]. Linking this
to a GIS with a digital map of the
maze and GPS location informa-
tion is almost trivial, technically.
Products currently for sale can
be used to enforce almost any spa-
tial or temporal constraint that the
master is willing to impose on the
slave. A master can prescribe a
route and force a slave to follow it
to a precision measured in centime-
ters. Or, a master may grant a slave
free rein except for certain areas
defined as taboo. Or, a master may
limit a slave’s visits to specified
places, times, and durations. Or, a
master may prohibit intersections
between a slave’s track and that of
any other specified slave or group
of slaves.
Some current products (a short
search on the WWW will reveal
more) that offer the ability to mon-
itor the positions of people or vehi-
cles are shown in Table I.
Although not the stated inten-
tion of these vendors, it is quite
possible for an abusive husband,
for example, to purchase an inex-
pensive devise or service that will
enable him to follow his wife’s
every step, monitor her daily trav-
els, report her whereabouts, identi-
fy whether she visits a specified
friend, and time her stay on any
given visit. If she still loves him
after all this, she cannot purchase
his birthday gift without revealing
which shop or shops she visited.
Such systems are already in use
to incarcerate convicted criminals
in Britain and the U.S. Prisoners
are allowed to be in certain places
at certain times, and not to range
outside a prescribed polygon.
These people have been found
guilty in a recognized judicial sys-
tem and are having their liberty
curtailed as part of the criminal jus-
tice system. Others, however, may
be subject to the same technology
without due process.
Geoslavery is a global human
rights issue. In the United States,
United Kingdom, and other coun-
tries with long traditions of person-
al freedom, the most severe abuses
may be avoided through cultural
constraints and future legislation.
In most of the world, however,
abuses will be inevitable. In some
countries geoslavery may be the
principle LBS use and will spell the
end of any semblance of freedom.
Traditional societies, especially,
will face threats from inside and
out. Lacking technical know-how
and capital of their own, indige-
nous peoples may face intrusive
threats from unscrupulous out-
siders who coerce or trick them
into geoslavery. Glittering bracelet-
style tracking devices may be given
freely or sold at far below actual
cost. Once deployed the devices
can be used in any number of ways
to enslave laborers and extract a
financial return. Forced laborers on
plantations, for example, may nev-
er be able to hide or escape their
bondage; giving a new means for
unscrupulous masters to abuse
workers. Child slaves may be
forced to beg or steal on specified
streets for specified hours with no
chance of hiding away for a little
rest, much less escaping for good.
Sex slaves may be confined to
brothels, street corners, and speci-
fied trysts with little possibility of
seeking other employment or
escaping to their home villages.
Recognized as a new form of
slavery, geoslavery will contravene
Article 4 of the Universal Declara-
tion of Human Rights passed as
Resolution 217A(III) of 10 Decem-
ber 1948, “No one shall be held in
slavery or servitude; slavery and
the slave trade shall be prohibited
in all their forms.” Real-time pun-
ishment via transponders may be
considered as cruel, inhuman or
degrading treatment or punish-
ment, and thus contrary to Article
5. Furthermore, restricting individ-
ual movements is contrary to Arti-
cle 13 (1): “Everyone has the right
to freedom of movement and resi-
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003 49
Digital Angel Http:// A wristband to be locked to the
individual enabling tracking of all
movements, marked for use with
children and senior citizens.
Whereify Http:// Marketing devices for monitoring
Wireless locations of vehicles, children,
or senior citizens
Travel Eyes Http:// Vehicle tracking system for fleet
management and tax deductible
mileage calculation
dobson 2/25/03 1:08 PM Page 49
dence within the borders of each
state”. The same restrictions are
not specifically stated in the Decla-
ration of the Rights of the Child
passed as Resolution 1386(XIV) of
20 November 1959, but are implied
in many parts.
When public concerns become
acute, existing laws in many
nations and states may be extended
to cover certain aspects of geoslav-
ery. For example, laws against
stalking conceivably can be inter-
preted to address electronic track-
ing, and laws against human brand-
ing can be interpreted to address
the implantation of tracking
Geoslavery is, perhaps first and
foremost, a women’s rights issue.
To illustrate, consider the ultimate
sanction used to control women in
certain cultures. “Honor murders”
occur when a father, brother, or
husband kills a female family
member accused of “disgracing”
the family. Often the issue is loca-
tion as well as behavior.
One “honor murder” case cur-
rently galvanizing the international
women’s movement is the death of
a teenage girl, Sevda Gok, whose
family held a council and voted to
execute her in violation of their
own country’s laws (http://www.
/1996_hrp_report/turkey.html). A
young cousin was assigned to kill
her, and he did so by slitting her
throat in the middle of a street
while other family members
restrained her. How did Sevda Gok
disgrace her family? She went to a
movie without permission. No
tracking device was employed in
her case, but surely any culture that
exerts such extreme location con-
trol over its youth will feel no com-
punction against electronic
geoslavery. If the devices aren’t
widely adopted, it will be due to
other factors such as cost or techni-
cal complexity. Of course, with
positional accuracies of GPS and
digital maps being as they are,
some girls may die for pausing near
a movie or a sweetheart’s home
rather than actually going inside.
Soon, an enterprising business-
man in Sevda Gok’s village may be
able to purchase a central monitor-
ing system (personal computer
with GIS, radio receiver, and
optional transmitter) for less than
$2000 and individual tracking
devices (GPS, radio transmitter,
and optional transponder) for less
than $100 per unit which can be
locked onto the wrists of every
member of the village (women,
children, and men). Most likely, he
will be able to offer a service to vil-
lage parents at an affordable price
that will cover his investment and a
tidy profit. If, say, 100 families sign
up and capital equipment is amor-
tized over ten years, the cost to
each family may be somewhat less
than 1 per cent of the median fam-
ily income in that country.
Further information on Honor
Killings can be found on the
Amnesty International Web site
(ht t p: / / www. amnest y. org. uk/
cgi-bin/eatsoup.cgi?id= PL2BtdR
Technology per se is neither
good nor evil, and it certainly can-
not be held responsible for the sins
of society. But technology can
empower those who choose to
engage in good or bad behavior. In
this case, LBS will support and
amplify some of the more extreme
tendencies of human nature. Par-
ents who choose to protect their
children through surveillance and
location control now may do so in
the extreme. Tyrants who choose to
dominate their subjects, husbands
and wives who choose to dominate
their spouses, and employers who
choose to dominate their employ-
ees now may do so in the extreme.
Many of these choices will be con-
sidered legitimate in one culture
and not in another.
The perception of good and evil,
of course, may change over time.
In 1967, for example, during early
development of GIS to support
computerization of the 1970 cen-
sus, a Yale University administrator
declared the efforts a threat to indi-
vidual privacy and closed the pro-
ject’s computer accounts [8]. Yet,
far more invasive measures, such as
citywide video surveillance, are
routinely tolerated today. Surely,
the current generation of children
growing up with video cameras on
their school buses will view sur-
veillance differently than their pre-
Wars traditionally tilt the bal-
ance in favor of sacrificing person-
al freedom for the sake of public
safety and security. In the current
War on Terrorism, strong positions
have been expressed on both sides
regarding increased U. S. govern-
ment access to information about
personal transactions (including
their geographic coordinates) fol-
lowing the terrorist attack of Sep-
tember 11, 2001. In the climate of
fear that currently exists around the
globe, one might readily imagine
the citizens of any nation demand-
ing that all suspicious foreigners be
tagged with human-tracking
devices for the duration of their
stay. Or, they might take it further
and demand that all foreigners be
tagged. Or, they might include their
fellow citizens as well. Who knows
how far hysteria may take us?
We, as geographers, are acutely
aware of cultural diversity around
the globe and changes within each
culture over time. We do suggest,
however, that certain shared values
are nearly universal. Over the past
two centuries, the vast majority of
nations have agreed that slavery is
wrong, and slavery is prohibited,
accordingly, by most nations and
by the international conventions
cited above. Developers, mar-
keters, and sellers of LBS technol-
ogy have a professional responsi-
bility to familiarize themselves
with likely outcomes and with the
laws and norms that may apply.
50 IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003
dobson 2/25/03 1:09 PM Page 50
IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003 51
They have a social responsibility to
recuse themselves from any devel-
opment or application that overtly
and directly aims to enslave indi-
viduals who have committed no
crime and pose no threat to the
safety and security of others.
In one sense geoslavery is the
ultimate fulfillment of George
Orwell’s “Big Brother” nightmare,
but geoslavery differs in two
major ways from what he imag-
ined in 1984 [6].
First, LBS makes Orwell’s tele-
vision-based surveillance technolo-
gy look amateurish. His technology
relied on human observers watch-
ing other human subjects and initi-
ating actions to control their behav-
ior. Being digital, LBS can be
programmed so that it watches
each and every subject, evaluates
myriad pathways based on models
or sets of rules, and automatically
issues instructions and punish-
ments. With his visual system, one
human observer might reasonably
monitor 20 or at most, say, 50 oth-
er humans. With LBS, one human
operator could monitor 1,000. .
.10,000. . .100,000. . .1,000,000
fellow humans and yet know if any
one of them steps off the path by
more than a few centimeters.
Second, Orwell’s warning was
that governments someday may
use technology to control individ-
uals. Governments may employ
geoslavery as well, but our princi-
pal warning is that individuals can
use current technology to control
other individuals or groups of
individuals. The institution of
slavery again serves as a sobering
example. Throughout history, the
vast majority of slaves were
owned, not by governments, but
by individuals.
LBS technology is the quintes-
sential double-edged sword. Hard-
ware and software for monitoring
vehicle fleets are sold, for the best
of reasons, to reduce costs and
improve efficiency. New issues are
raised, however, if those same vehi-
cles are monitored outside of work
hours when used for private activi-
ties. Caring parents may use LBS
solely to protect their children, but
domineering parents may do so to
exert obsessive control even into
adulthood. Conversely, caring chil-
dren may use LBS to monitor par-
ents suffering from Alzheimer’s
disease, but who will decide when
you personally are sufficiently
impaired to warrant
such control? Physi-
cal incarceration gen-
erally would require
some type of legal or
medical review, but
similar protections
have not yet devel-
oped for electronic
forms of incarcera-
tion. The challenge is
to develop safeguards
that simultaneously
permit legitimate uses
while preventing mis-uses.
One answer may lie in encryp-
tion and licensing of GPS signals,
but the solution will be expensive
and will require an enormous insti-
tutional apparatus worldwide. In
this approach, access to the locator
signal might be degraded far more
than the previous degradation,
called Selective Availability, that
was ended by the Clinton adminis-
tration in 2000. Access to the un-
degraded signal would then be sub-
ject to review and approval based
on national and international
Encryption and licensed access
is exactly what the European Union
is planning for access to signals
from the Galileo GPS satellites.
The higher precision of this system
over the Navsat of the United
States’ GPS is supposed to be the
selling point for this system for air-
craft navigation and LBS. The
geoslavery issues raised here
should be part of the consideration
for releasing that encryption key.
Controlling user access by signal
encryption will fail unless accompa-
nied by strict controls over manu-
facturers, as well. This approach
would render the current generation
of GPS receivers unusable without
additional decryption technology,
thus suggesting a phased approach
to allow manufacturers time to
redesign the next generation of
receivers. Care then must be taken
to ensure that new devices do not
circumvent the purpose, for exam-
ple by manufacturers acquiring
codes for legitimate purposes and
installing them in geoslavery
devices, as well. Therefore, licens-
ing and monitoring of the LBS
industry may be required to ensure
that products are not designed to
serve unethical purposes.
Yet, this solution only addresses
the risk from GPS. The risk from
other mobile location-aware
devices such as mobile phones
Do we need licensing organiza-
tions at the national level which
control the production and services
of all such industries? Are the Fed-
eral Communications Commission
or OfTel ready for this role in the
U.S. and U.K. respectively? Are
national and global human rights
organizations prepared to address
geoslavery? No, not at all.
Both authors are long-term
insiders of the GIS community.
Hazards are ignored by
vendors, and all too often,
by public officials as well.
dobson 2/25/03 1:10 PM Page 51
52 IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, Spring 2003
Dobson published his first GIS
article in 1979, served as Presi-
dent of the University Consor-
tium for Geographic Informa-
tion Science, and currently
serves as President of the Amer-
ican Geographical Society.
Fisher has been a university lec-
turer and, later, professor spe-
cializing in geographical infor-
mation science for more than 20
years, and is currently editor of
the International Journal of
Geographical Information Sci-
ence. Our predicament reminds
us of the ethical dilemma faced
by pioneers of nuclear science
when they first realized the
societal risk associated with the
technology they had helped to
create–a realization that
prompted Robert Oppenheimer
to say, “Now, we’re the SOBs.”
Like nuclear energy, LBS
offers major benefits on the one
hand and horrendous risks on the
other. As with nuclear energy,
responsible governments and
industries must develop LBS safe-
guards, possibly at levels of effort
rivaling those devoted to advance-
ment of the technology itself.
Once, when a colleague at Oak
Ridge National Laboratory com-
plained about the funding and
perks going to nuclear engineers
to fix a broken reactor, Dobson
told him, “Invent something dan-
gerous enough, and screw it up
badly enough, and you’ll have a
job forever.” Now, unfortunately,
it appears we ourselves may have
done just that. Now we, too, are
the SOBs.
[1] M. Monmonier, S py i ng wi t h Map s :S u rvei l l anceT e ch n o l ogi es and t he Fut ure of Priva cy . Chicago, IL: Univ. of
Chicago Press, 2002.
[2] J. Goss, “We know who you are and
we know where you live: The instrumen-
tal rationality of geodemographic sys-
tems,” Economic Geography, vol. 71, no.
2, 1995.
[3] J.E. Dobson, “Is GIS a privacy
threat?” GIS World, vol. 11, no. 7. 1998.
[4] J.E. Dobson, “What are the ethical
limits of GIS?” GeoWorld, vol. 13, no. 5,
[5] J.E. Dobson, “Geoslavery,” presented at
Association of American Geographers
Annual Meeting, Los Angeles, CA, Mar. 19-
22, 2002.
[6] Orwell, G. 1984. New York: New
American Library. 1990, first published
[7] S.K. Talwar, S. Xu, E. S. Hawley, et al.
“Behavioural neuroscience: Rat naviga-
tion guided by remote control,” Nature,
vol. 417, pp. 37-38, 2002.
[8] D.F. Cooke, “Topology and TIGER:
The Census Bureau’s contribution,” in
The History of GIS: Perspectives from the
Pioneers, T. Foresman, Ed. Upper Saddle
River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998, pp. 52-53.
dobson 2/25/03 1:11 PM Page 52