Virtual prisons: how e-maps are curtailing our freedom

Almost unnoticed, electronic maps and sensors are limiting what we do and where we do it – the question now is, how far will we let them go?

ELECTRONIC maps are arguably the quintessential innovation of 20th-century cartography. Although a few academic cartographers accord the map mystical powers, it is merely a tool, useful for good, evil or both, which citizens can resist or constrain - up to a point. The question is not whether e-maps will restrict where we go and what we do, but to what extent.

What I call "restrictive cartography" is not in itself new. Property maps are at least as old as Roman times, and boundary maps no younger than kingdoms and nation states. What is new, however, is the substantial increase in both the number and diversity of restrictive maps. A comparison of mapping in 1900 and 2000 underscores my point.

Since 1900, we have used maps to exclude industry from residential neighbourhoods, ban new construction on floodplains, help delineate "historic" districts that constrain a homeowner's choice of paint colour or replacement windows, put limits on where and with what weapons we can hunt game, restrict travel by foreign diplomats and journalists, prevent sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds, and keep aircraft a nautical mile away from a vice-president's weekend retreat.

The public tolerates these cartographic restrictions because many, if not most, are not only benign but essential. Environmental protection, for instance, relies on mapping as a regulatory instrument to safeguard water resources and wildlife habitat. Maps delineating rights of way for gas lines and other underground facilities guard against accidental breaches by a digger arm, at least by conscientious contractors. "Call before you dig" is a mantra of restrictive cartography. Property maps show rights of way that might thwart a buyer's plan to enlarge a home or re-configure an access road, and maps of quarantine areas aimed at farmers stem the spread of fruit-fly infestations. Government officials publish restrictive maps because they assume the boundaries will be heeded.

In 2010, however, restrictive cartography is on the verge of more invasive applications as electronic technology replaces graphic lines requiring conscious interpretation with invisible fences, erected by proactive, self-enforcing geographical restrictions.

The most impressive examples, and the most frightening, reflect the integration of geographical information systems (GIS), the Global Positioning System (GPS), and wireless telecommunications. A tracking device can instantly report its location to a GIS that determines whether the person, car or ship under surveillance has entered a prohibited area. Depending on circumstances and severity, a future system might be able to debit an offender's bank account, transmit a vocal warning or electronic pinch, notify the police or military, disable an engine, or even release a soporific drug into the violator's bloodstream.

Electronic tagging and tracking on an unprecedented level is virtually certain - and could happen very soon. Motorists who appreciate the convenience of paying road tolls and parking fees automatically are unlikely to resist mandatory RFID tags - what's the use if electronic scanners can collect the same information from licence plates or bar-coded registration stickers? Electronic tracking makes it easy to limit access to congested areas and keep heavy trucks off residential streets, while adding a transponder that reports location enables automatic enforcement of traffic regulations. Smart algorithms are likely to be built into the software controlling the transponders, which could detect erratic driving characteristic of drunkenness or aggression, perhaps. Minimal resistance to cameras mounted above traffic lights attests to creeping acquiescence.

An unprecedented level of electronic tagging and tracking is virtually certain

Because the public is willing to trade control over their lives for convenience, the cellphone already doubles as a tracking device, and raises the possibility of "spatial micromanagement": of employees by employers, of children by parents, of elderly parents by grown children, and of suspected subversives by the authorities. Meanwhile, strategies for encouraging cooperation include GPS wristwatches, security badges, ankle bracelets and even subdermal chips.

Threats to privacy and personal freedom are well known and obvious. In the spring 2003 issue of the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine, geographers Jerome Dobson and Peter Fisher warned of "geoslavery" by obsessive husbands or boyfriends, poised to punish perceived transgressions.

The fact that geospatial tracking might be equally efficient for enforcing restraining orders on those who abuse their partners underscores an inherent ambiguity that impels acceptance, especially in the name of public safety or national defence. If the tracking of sex offenders, stalkers and people with Alzheimer's is acceptable, why not the tracking of thieves and drunk drivers?

Once in place, a national geospatial surveillance administration can accommodate an ever-wider variety of electronic boundary lines, and offer disgruntled taxpayers an alternative to costly incarceration. For many crimes, an electronic map makes more sense than a prison, which may well only reinforce antisocial behaviour and allow criminals to exchange tricks of the trade.

Efficient, but hardly fail-safe. Electronic cartography is vulnerable to incompetent technicians, malevolent hackers, cyber-terrorists and lobbyists for "special interests". Like traditional maps, e-cartography invites manipulation by government or corporations, often in the guise of national defence or free-market capitalism.

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