Zoombak tracking device raises questions about privacy and safety

24 Mar Zoombak tracking device raises questions about privacy and safety

San Jose Mercury News, By Joshua Melvin, March 24, 2009

After Stella escaped from the yard of her Los Altos home for the third time, her owner decided she needed a way to track the husky-mix dog. Clare, who asked that her last name not be used, found several options on the Internet but settled on a device called the Zoombak, which uses GPS technology and a cell signal to track the thing to which it is attached. “It’s very good for my peace of mind,” Clare said. “It’s better than running down the street yelling, ‘Stella!'” But several experts on technology and ethics say that while the Zoombak and similar products have legitimate uses, they can be abused by stalkers, jealous partners and even overzealous law enforcement agents. What particularly concerns them about the device is how tempting it could be to someone with no qualms about privacy. The device is about the size of a bar of soap and relatively affordable. A basic model costs about $150 plus a $10 to $15 monthly user fee. It’s also easy to track. Users who log onto a company Web site can see the exact location of the Zoombak — and whatever it’s attached to — on Microsoft Virtual Earth, said John Cullen, director of marketing for Zoombak LLC, which shipped out 50,000 of the devices last year. Users also can ask to receive a text or e-mail message when the device enters or leaves a certain area, he said. And that’s where privacy rights can be abused, some experts say. “Now you have cheap surveillance. … think of how easy this makes it for an ex who wants to harass somebody or a neighbor who wants to get some dirt on you,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights watchdog group. Chris Ridder, from Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said there are already plenty of devices that can be used to track people. He said a computer chip in FasTrak transponders — used to pay bridge tolls automatically — can be tracked. And services such as Loopt and Latitude allow people using their cell phones to be located. The difference with the Zoombak, he said, is that it could be surreptitiously slipped into a handbag or attached to a car and tracked anonymously by anyone.

The product’s terms of use prohibit it from being used to track people, and user accounts can be deactivated if the company learns someone is violating those terms, Cullen said.

The company would take legal action if it found someone was using the device to track people, he added. Cullen said he doesn’t think the Zoombak is different than any other product on the market with a potential for abuse. Shannon Vallor, assistant professor of philosophy at Santa Clara University, said if the company doesn’t verify how people use the product there is nothing to stop it from being used inappropriately. Cullen replied that although the data collected to check the location of the Zoombak is only available to the user, it would have to be revealed if subpoenaed. Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation said regulations governing who can access data collected from GPS devices and under what circumstances aren’t strict. “It’s still pretty wild, Wild West,” he said. Los Altos resident Clare, an electrical engineer in consumer electronics, said she understands all the privacy issues, but isn’t concerned by them. She said she has embraced emergent technology in the past, citing purchases she made with her credit card on the Internet long before it was an accepted practice. Like buying online, Clare said she thinks the convenience and ease of the Zoombak outweighs possible drawbacks. And besides, there are other tracking technologies out there she thinks are scarier. “I don’t think I’m putting Google Latitude on my iPhone,” she said. “That’s just too creepy.”