A small company in Texas has produced the TraqCloud, a new, significantly cheaper way to track anyone or anything using GPS. TraqCloud, in its promotional materials, is marketed for luggage or kid tracking, but using such a tracker against a suspected cheating love interest, a sneaky business partner, or local law enforcement is now simple and inexpensive.
The electronics combine a GPS tracker with a GSM-based radio for real-time location reporting, all contained in a case roughly the size of a deck of cards. The TraqCloud is powered by a rechargeable battery, which the company says will last 1-14 days, depending on the frequency of location updates. All location data is uploaded to the company’s cloud service, where the TraqCloud can be tracked by anyone with a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The service can geofence specific locations, warning the owner if a TraqCloud either leaves or enters the property; it can also display a “breadcrumbs” view showing the TraqCloud’s location over time (with breadcrumbs in red if a tracked car is speeding at a specific location).
The real kicker here is the price: TraqCloud charges just $69 for the device plus $10 per month in service fees, which covers both the GSM data connection and the company’s cloud service. (Similar cheap devices are largely made by no-name manufacturers in Asia, selling on eBay.) For some time now, commercial products have made it easy for anyone to track anyone else for any reason, but those cost around $150 upfront, with a $20 to $50 monthly service fee after that. (Intrepid tinkerers have developed cheaper, DIY-basd solutions, particularly to track your own car.)
For the last 10 days, TraqCloud has tried to raise money for its product via its Kickstarter campaign, and the first 100 trackers sold for just $19, with the first three months of service free.
“It is possible for any type of tracking device to be used for the wrong reasons,” Michael Hamilton, a TraqCloud cofounder, told Ars. “We promote safety things like child location tracking, fleet tracking, luggage tracking, safe teenage driving, and theft prevention. Keep in mind we are just a couple of dads with an amazing idea focused on providing the best possible GPS tracking experience via our device and cloud service.”
Hamilton added that his company’s acceptable use policy forbids violating the privacy of others.
“Violating this policy is grounds for termination of the service,” he added.
“Surveillance law is likely to be irrelevant”
Back in January 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that law enforcement did not have the authority to place a GPS tracker onto someone’s car without a warrant. However, the same rule may not apply to individuals tracking other individuals (particularly those traveling on public roads); for now, such tracking remains a legal gray area.
“This strikes me as the classic glass-is-half-empty/glass-is-half-full scenario we so often face with new technologies and privacy,” Fred Cate, a law professor at Indiana University, told Ars by e-mail. “You can think of useful applications easily and at the same time envision enormous privacy invasions—keep an eye on an older adult with Alzheimer’s or become your own FBI. And as is so often the case with the development of new technologies, you don’t get the impression from the Kickstarter site that any attention has been paid to privacy or privacy-invading uses, again something that is very common with new tools and applications.”
Brian Pascal, a legal fellow at the University of California Hastings, told Ars that inexpensive surveillance devices like TraqCloud are “inevitable.”
“Over time, technology gets smaller, cheaper, and more available to consumers, and there’s no reason to think GPS is an exception to that rule,” he wrote in an e-mail. “That said, it is awfully easy to imagine many scary examples of how a $19 consumer-grade GPS unit could be misused.
“Moreover, because you are tracking your own device’s signal, even if it is in somebody else’s bag or car, current surveillance law is likely to be irrelevant, something else that is remarkably familiar,” he added. “Ironically, the keys to whether this succeeds or fails will probably be ease of use, battery life, and reliability—certainly not privacy. I could teach a whole privacy course based on this one device.”
Further, Ruthann Robson, a law professor at the City University of New York, told Ars that users of this product may find civil lawsuits knocking at their door.
“While criminal contexts may first come to mind, there are personal injury cases, workers’ compensation, employment, and many family law cases, including divorce, custody, and abuse and neglect,” she said. “The video jokingly refers to tracking one’s ‘significant other,’ but perhaps that’s not a joke, especially when it comes to intimate partner violence. We’ve been worried about government surveillance, but in a surveilled society, we might be able to do the government’s work by watching each other”