Using technology to keep track of another person’s movements opens up all kinds of pitfalls says Jane Bradley
We live in a world where we can do almost nothing without being watched.
Our streets are lined with CCTV cameras - more than 200 in Edinburgh alone - and social media tracks our every move.
Considering a trip away or browsing a clothing website in your lunchbreak? If you are logged into Facebook while you peruse these sites in an entirely separate browser, they will still haunt you for weeks to come every time you open your news feed.
There is almost nothing we can do about it. In today’s society, everyone - from friends you have not seen for a decade, to companies you once bought something from - knows your business, holds your data and monitors your every move.
Yet some of us are not content with this level of personal invasion - we actually volunteer for more.
Increasingly, I have noticed that a lot of my friends use what is known as the “stalker app” on their iPhones. A little map tells them where people who have agreed to be signed up to the app - their partner, parent or child - are located at any given time.
In short, they are stalking them through the GPS on their phones.
Keen users insist that they use them not to keep track of their loved one in a sinister way, but to help plan things more precisely, such as the stalker noting when the stalkee has left work so they know when to start making dinner. Or so they can spot if their partner’s bus is stuck in a traffic jam on the way home.
But, I ask, what happens if they want to surprise each other? Stop off on the way home to buy their partner a surprise birthday present? Or even drop into the pub for a sneaky pint to round off the day? Any hint of mystery has been stamped out.
But those who use it insist that it isn’t a problem.
“You can switch it off,” one friend explained. “It goes blank, just like if you’re in a tunnel and out of signal.”
I can imagine that going down well.
I once wrote a column bemoaning that the creation of modern technology has killed the rom com. There can be no more meet-cutes followed by a misunderstanding as the traditional film format goes. Instead, any confusion over whether a potential love interest has intentionally stood someone up - or if he or she actually has a girlfriend who hilariously turns out to be his sister - can be solved by a quick stalk of his or her Facebook profile page.
In short, the uncertainty and confusion which spiced up romance at any time up to the 1990s has disappeared. Now, Harry can just drop Sally a WhatsApp message and the years of yearning, missed opportunities and misunderstandings would be quickly bypassed.
With this in mind, I can see that this kind of electronic stalker-ing solves the problem, opening up a world of cinematic possibilities.
In one new-world rom com, the app would show one partner stopping where they are not meant to be. Much anger and hilarity would ensue as the other tries to find out just what they were up to and why. Of course, it may be that the phone owner has lost their handset. Or mixed it up with one belonging to a friend. The storyline options are endless.
Yet technological developments mean that it is not only attentive partners who want to keep track of people - but their employers.
It emerged recently that a vending machine company in Wisconsin, in the US, is microchipping its staff. Not to check on their whereabouts - not yet, anyway - but to allow them to pass through security doors more easily.
The chip, according to experts, is as small as a grain of rice, but the user can still feel it beneath the skin, where it is implanted between thumb and index finger. It is not unlike those used by pet owners so that their cat flap can be opened by only their own pet - and not the neighbourhood fox cubs or local strays.
At present, chipping at the firm, Three Square Market, is optional. But those in favour have argued the benefits of a world where everyone is chipped, making life easier all round. A chip implanted at work could be used at home too - allowing users to open garage doors, operate burglar alarms, turn on lights and even switch on a car.
In fact, experts say, the chip could easily be transferred between companies - in a similar way to how a mobile phone number can be transferred to a new contract when you move between jobs.
It couldn’t, experts claim, be used to keep track of an employee’s whereabouts. It is not a GPS device, they say, but an RFID chip. It needs to be near a reader - a sensor on a door, for example, to be activated. But some people believe its uses could easily be extended to check on the length of lunch or toilet breaks.
To me, the idea sounds terrifying. Creepy. Like something out of a sci fi film.
But other people seem to like it.
Todd Westby, chief executive of the company, was quoted by The New York Times as saying that he was surprised by just how many of his staff were keen to adopt the technology, which allows them to swipe into the office building, login to computers and eventually pay for food in the cafeteria.
“Much to my surprise, when we had our initial meeting to ask if this was something we wanted to look at doing, it was an overwhelming majority of people that said yes,” Mr Westby explained. “It exceeded my expectations. Friends, they want to be chipped. My whole family is being chipped - my two sons, my wife and myself.”
To Mr Westby, presumably, the idea of the stalker app seems like mere child’s play compared to what he is doing, both domestically and professionally.
Each to their own.