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Jack Zaleski, Published October 02 2011

Zaleski: I’d rather get lost on rural back roads

The last time I drove to the East Coast, I borrowed one of those GPS units and affixed it to the dashboard of the car. I was headed into a part of rural Vermont I didn’t know, so I figured the magical technology would guide me to the obscure location of my daughter’s home in the hills.

It did, with uncanny accuracy. I was impressed, not only by the on-target directions but also by the thing’s soothing but authoritative female voice and the sharp, colorful road graphics. Wow, I marveled, this is really amazing. It didn’t miss a beat or fail to remind me when I missed a beat when I took a wrong turn. It (she?) even told me how to return to the right route. I gotta get me one of those, I said.

However, it didn’t take long for this card-carrying member of the Luddite society to think about what the technology was doing, what its apparently benign tracking was capable of. Was it really benign? Was I overthinking?

Consider: As we drove across the country, the snappy GPS unit guiding us along, it knew where we were. As we negotiated the back roads of rural Vermont, it knew where we’d come from, where we’d been and where we were going. It knew where my house was and where my daughter’s house was.

Someone somewhere had access to a helluva lot of information that probably was becoming part of a vast and mysterious database to be used for heaven knows what. Tens of thousands of GPS units of all kinds – OnStar, for example, in some new cars, which you get whether you want it or not – are connected to satellite technology that tracks your every move when you’re in your car. Hell, it even knows when you get out of the car at a highway rest stop.

Paranoid, am I? I don’t think so. The ubiquity of such technology guarantees intrusiveness, even as we blithely invite it into our lives. The ready convenience of sophisticated GPS units and other gadgets (just think of the power of cellphones and similar devices) assures almost passive acquiescence to a subtle and steady erosion of privacy.

We’ve become individual databases that get aggregated for marketing purposes. All that given-up information is commodified to be bought and sold in order to build profiles, which in turn are used to sell us stuff. There is nothing illegal in all that – yet. And market profiling is not a new science in the commercial world. It’s just that technology is making it increasingly creepy.

For my part, I can do without the technology. I’d rather get lost on the back roads of Vermont than rely on what has become George Orwell’s “Big Brother” on steroids.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.