Spies in the sky

LONDON, JULY 24. Lost an absent-minded relative? Misplaced an offender on the prowl? Where is the nearest fire engine? Relax. Your worries are over. Global navigation satellite systems will trace them.

The myriad benefits promised by the launch of new positioning systems are opening up a future where we need never lose our way — or our mobile phones — and where our movements may be tracked around the clock by a ``spy-in-the-sky.''

The latest proposal to exploit the technological potential of remote surveillance is road pricing. The U.K. Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, endorsed the principle this week of introducing charges for motorists by fitting satellite receivers to all cars. The cost could be substantial: at least �10 billion.

Pilot projects

Earlier this month the U.K. Home Secretary, David Blunkett, signalled his enthusiasm for a scheme in Florida that uses the U.S.-run Global Positioning System (GPS) to monitor released prisoners. It is expected that the Home Secretary will authorise three pilot projects in Britain later this year, enabling probation officers to keep a watch on sex offenders and others. The technique, providing new alternatives to prison, will require offenders to wear ankle bracelets and a tracking device on a belt. If they approach addresses or schools from which they are banned, action can be taken.

There are two systems, both designed primarily for military purposes: GPS, consisting of 24 satellites orbiting 11,000 miles above the earth and operated by the U.S. Defence Department, and the Russian equivalent, Glonass. A third one is planned. It is claimed that Galileo, due to be launched in 2008 by the European Union (E.U.), will transform the process.

Accurate positioning

The network of 27 satellites will provide more accurate positioning and trigger a wave of novel commercial uses. ``We will see a revolution in Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) applications in the next 20 years that will mirror the sort of advances we have seen in mobile phone technology in the past 20 years. The ripples from Galileo will spread... '' said the U.K. Transport Minister, David Jamieson. Not everyone, however, is convinced. The House of Commons Transport Select Committee has announced it will hold an inquiry into Galileo. It is intended to report ahead of a meeting of the E.U. Transport Council, made up of Transport Ministers, in December that will decide whether to authorise the next phase. © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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