Global Positioning System (GPS) Tracking

The Global Positioning System (GPS) is the name for the U.S. global navigation satellite system. Originally created for use by the military, GPS is now appearing in a number of educational, institutional, and consumer products. Some educators and parents have expressed concerns about the impact of schools’ use of GPS on student and employee privacy.

The current GPS network consists of 31 satellites in orbit around the earth. The satellite system is designed so that any global location is within sight of at least 6 satellites. Using a special receiver that can communicate with the satellites, individuals or vehicles can locate themselves on the globe within a range of a few meters. In 1996, President Clinton declared the GPS network a “dual-use” technology, allowing for civilian use of the satellites. Today, GPS is widely used to aid navigation and to assist with surveying, mapmaking, and telecommunications network synchronization.

School Uses

School boards have begun using GPS technologies to track the location and speed of buses and other school vehicles. In such a system, vehicles are equipped with small transmitters that transmit radio signals several times a minute. District receivers can pick up signals within a 20-mile radius, thus allowing dispatchers to determine a vehicle’s location, when and where it stops, and how fast it is traveling.

School board officials have espoused a number of reasons for using GPS technologies with school buses. School officials want to know where buses are at all times and want the ability to monitor school bus speeds and stops, both for driver monitoring and for increasing the time or fuel efficiency of bus routes. In another use of GPS systems, school Web sites or cell phone alerts for caregivers of children in dangerous neighborhoods can be used to notify parents exactly where children are and when they will arrive at their stops. Many GPS-equipped school buses have an emergency button that drivers can use in case of accidents or hijackings. The button alerts dispatchers while also identifying the exact location of school buses, making it easier for emergency vehicles to provide assistance. Moreover, some school GPS systems have a feature that alerts school officials when buses travel outside of their designated geographic zones.

Legal Issues

School uses of GPS technologies raise several legal issues. Some truck drivers and police officers have expressed concern about their institutions’ right to monitor their driving habits. As school board GPS usage becomes more widespread, it is likely that there also will be some backlash from drivers of buses and other school vehicles, accompanied by union management discussions and/or grievances. Some analysts anticipate that federal and state agencies will begin requesting access to school GPS tracking data for a variety of purposes, including monitoring of compliance with wage hour and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.

The admissibility of GPS tracking data in court currently is unknown, as is the liability of schools and other government entities for losses due to equipment malfunction or failure. Gross negligence claims against school boards and their employees may be possible as injured parties claim that failure to implement GPS-based safety systems falls below relevant standards of care.

Insofar as GPS tracking data can be used for external monitoring of individuals or vehicles, many critics are concerned that it contributes to what they call the “surveillance society.” Along with other technologies, such as networked public cameras, radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, bar codes, swipe cards, biometrics, and microchip implantation, the concern is that the United States is becoming a society in which individuals’ movements and actions are tracked, monitored, and recorded to the greatest extent possible.

Although GPS tracking of school buses has yet to raise such an outcry, some systems do monitor students’ departure from buses as well as unauthorized persons’ entry onto buses. Monitoring thus shifts from vehicles to individuals, which may also implicate student privacy and parental consent provisions of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPPA). Under COPPA’s provisions, Web site operators and other commercial entities must comply with restrictions on how they collect and store data on children under the age of 13, devise their privacy policies, and seek verifiable consent from a parent or guardian.

Although nonprofit entities typically are exempt from the COPPA regulations, the ability of schools to allow GPS companies to monitor and compile student locational data is an unresolved legal issue. Recent parent protests over schools’ use of RFID tags to track individual students’ locations and attendance demonstrates that GPS technologies must be used sensitively in order to avoid public disapproval and legal disputes.

Scott McLeod

See also Privacy Rights of Students; Regulation; Technology and the Law; Video Surveillance

Further Readings

  • Sovocool, D. R. (1999, April). GPS: Charting new terrain: Legal issues related to GPS-based navigation and location systems. Retrieved June 1, 2007, from http://library.findlaw.com/1999/Jul/2/130417.html 

Legal Citations

  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. § 6501.