To Protect and Intrude
D.C. Public School System to Track Special-Needs Children With GPS Locators
By Ariana Eunjung Cha, Washington Post Staff Writer
Could the D.C. Public Schools bus have been stolen -- or worse -- hijacked with children still on board?
Phillips quickly clicked on the icon representing the vehicle and relaxed at what he saw. The bus was in front of the Kennedy Center. It was on a field trip.
From inside a dimly lit room behind two-foot-thick concrete walls, a steel door and jail gate, Phillips and eight other staffers in this 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week command center are like all-seeing gods, watching over thousands of people across the continent.
Phillips works for Satellite Security Systems Inc., or S3, one of a growing number of private companies providing satellite tracking services to anyone willing to pay. Once a fabulously expensive tool for the military, the technology is becoming part of everyday life, spawning dozens of new uses.
S3's clients include school districts such as the District and Fairfax County, state and federal government agencies, police departments and companies. But there are plenty of individual customers, too -- people interested in keeping tabs on new teenage drivers, Alzheimer's patients, philandering spouses.
The position of vehicles or people is determined by gear they carry that includes Global Positioning System, or GPS, technology, which uses a network of satellites orbiting the Earth to pinpoint the location of things on the ground. The information is then beamed to S3's computers.
On a recent weekday, the screens were flashing through maps almost too quickly for the human eye to process. A computer technician was making his way along Sully Avenue in Centreville. Milk delivery trucks were swarming all over Houston, making their morning drop-offs. Tank cars of oil were traversing the Midwest.
S3 tracks so many vehicles that federal homeland security officials rely on it to make sure none venture near sensitive areas. One map showed that all was quiet near an anonymous red-marked mass outside Denver.
Phillips said the tracking systems have helped increase security as well as efficiency for those who use them. "We look for anything out of the normal and can get a sense of the big picture of how things are moving around in a particular area in a way that couldn't be done before," said Phillips, a 33-year-old former Drug Enforcement Administration officer turned entrepreneur who is now chief executive of S3.
S3 is only one company making use of GPS. In the past year or so, prompted in part by a federal mandate requiring most cell phones to be GPS-enabled by the end of 2005 for enhanced 911 service, the price of the technology and other location-based gadgets dropped low enough to make them affordable for mass consumption.
Nextel Communications Inc., for example, offers its subscribers phone-tracking ability for as little as a $15 activation fee, and Sprint Corp. is expected to roll out a similar offering this year. A company called Wherify Wireless Inc. plans to sell an inexpensive GPS tracker at Wal-Mart stores starting this spring. Companies such as United Parcel Service Inc. and SuperShuttle International Inc. are requiring workers to keep a GPS system on them throughout the day. Police in several major cities are tagging cars of suspects in criminal investigations with GPS units.
The growing use of location-based technology is prompting a backlash from those who worry about its potential for invading people's privacy. The Teamsters and other unions, for instance, have fought for new language in their contracts that limits the use of data collected by the devices in order to discipline workers. Snowplow operators in Boston protested when the state announced it would ask them to carry GPS-enabled cell phones.
Laws and legal precedent are often unclear about when and how GPS devices can be used. A federal judge in New York recently ruled that police have a right to place tracking devices on vehicles without a warrant because the drivers should have no expectation of privacy on public roads. But on Jan. 1, California became the first state to restrict car rental companies' use of GPS to track customers. The new law was adopted after at least one company fined customers $3,000 because their GPS system indicated the cars had crossed the state line into Nevada -- a violation of the rental agreement.
GPS is a navigation system operated by the U.S. Department of Defense. It relies on satellites that continuously broadcast their position and the time and date, creating a sort of grid of the planet. GPS receivers on the ground -- be they attached to vehicles or cell phones or other gadgets -- collect signals from the satellites and use that information to calculate their own whereabouts.
Superimposing these coordinates on maps pinpoints street addresses and landmarks nearby. By taking readings at different times, the system can also calculate speed and direction.
So many people and vehicles are now being tracked by GPS that the White House announced in December that President Bush had ordered plans for shutting down the GPS satellites in the event of a national crisis to prevent terrorists and other enemies of the country from using them.
The D.C. public school system is in the midst of implementing one of the largest tracking systems, a five-year, $6 million endeavor. Over the past few months, some 650 buses have been equipped with GPS locators. By this fall, the 4,000 special-needs children who ride those buses will be issued high-tech ID cards that will log when they get on and off the bus. Parents will be given secret codes that will enable them to use the Internet to track their children.
Parents of D.C. public school students have complained for years about problems with buses that were running late or just didn't show up, prompting a federal court to appoint an independent transportation administrator. Some parents expressed mixed feelings about the new program.
"I like that the system lets you watch them, because you never know what's going on on the bus, and I want to be sure my kids are safe," said Deneen Pryor, mother of three children, ages 5, 7 and 10, who ride D.C. Public School buses. But, she added, "I worry about criminals getting the information. I don't want anybody watching them that's not supposed to be watching them."
Alan Massey is one of the ones who is supposed to be watching. The 27-year-old former U.S. Army sergeant oversees S3's monitoring center, where 17 video screens track some 10,000 vehicles and people. By the end of this year, that number is set to at least double.
Some screens display maps of areas where the clients are located. Others scroll through text describing key events, based on data from the satellites and other sensors installed on the buses to monitor whether the engine is on and other conditions.
The computers note that at 9:02 a.m. Eastern time, for instance, a D.C. school bus closed its doors at the 1300 block of Allison Street, and at 9:03 a.m. the ignition of another one turned on somewhere on New York Avenue. At 9:03 a.m., a Fairfax County driver had just turned off his engine and parked at the 7500 block of Jackson Street in Falls Church and another was on Lee Jackson Highway going 45 mph.
Massey said that most of the monitoring is automated and that the S3 staff is there mostly there to help out in emergencies. He said he takes a detached, unemotional view toward the tracking and respects people's right to privacy. "We only look at them when we have to. It's not like we're spying on them."
Most clients have ready access to 45 days' to a year's worth of tracking data and need to make a special request to see the archives of older stuff. The company's decision to indefinitely maintain the data it collects occasionally figures into criminal investigations. In 2004, S3 says, information collected from its GPS systems led to 70 arrests.
Still, Phillips said he worries that the system, like any new technology, can be abused.
In one case, S3 sold its technology to a pilot in the New York-New Jersey area who hid the tracking device on the car of a female acquaintance. He called the monitoring center constantly to get a fix on the GPS device's position so, unbeknownst to the company, he could follow her around in a low-flying plane. After she became suspicious and called local law enforcement officials, they found the GPS device and S3 cooperated with authorities to gather evidence for the stalker's arrest.
The alerts generated by S3 as it has tracked school vehicles so far have been minor, and more often than not they are false alarms, such as when someone goes outside the boundaries of the county for a field trip and forgets to inform the transportation dispatchers.
Fairfax County Public Schools was among S3's first customers. It has used GPS to monitor 57 technician and security cars for the past three years. Maribeth Luftglass, assistant superintendent for information technology, said that at first the employees in the cars being tracked were nervous. Dave Fry, 47, a senior telephone technician for the school system, for instance, said he worried that there would be "Big Brother watching." But that changed over the years.
"When first put it on, it was, 'Hey what's going on? How are they going to use it?' But now I don't even realize it's there," Fry said. "They call and say, 'You're at such and such site. Can you get over here?' And that's it."
D.C. Public Schools is taking a more aggressive approach to monitoring. The information it receives on each bus and child is detailed: a driver's route throughout the day, when the bus stops, when the doors open and close, the speed, and when the ignition is turned on or off. The system also features a database that will hold information on all the children -- names, addresses, contact information, disabilities, allergies and when their school day begins and ends.
David Gilmore, the court-appointed transportation administrator for D.C. Public Schools, proposed hiring S3 in part to keep tabs on a system that had been expensive to operate and one in which drivers were unaccountable for much of their day. When he announced the implementation of the new systems to drivers last year, he told them, "Life as you know it is over."
"As uncomfortable as this might make them, they are now being watched by satellite every minute of their workday, like it or not," Gilmore said in an interview.
He said he has already seen improvement. Reports of bus drivers using the vehicles to make detours to banks or for long lunches are diminishing, and the system is receiving compliments rather than complaints from parents who say their kids are finally being picked up on time.