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Briefing Papers

Tracking People Network Briefing Paper 1: Tracking People: controversies and challenges

Anthea Hucklesby (University of Leeds, UK), Ray Holt (University of Leeds, UK) and Kevin Macnish (University of Twente, The Netherlands)


Technological developments have made tracking people part of the everyday. Our locations are tracked systematically by smartphones and apps but our movements can also be traced retrospectively using a wide variety of methods including CCTV, ANPR (Automated Number Plate Recognition), credit card transactions and so on. Whilst these data are collected and are searchable it is usually only mined if individuals become of interest to the authorities. Whilst the ability to do this raises many issues, what makes certain uses of these technologies contentious is that individuals are required to wear devices whose primary purpose is to systematically track their locations. Most of these devices are designed to be worn continuously and are made to be difficult to remove. Unwanted consequences may follow for some users if devices are discarded or tampered with.

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Tracking People Network Briefing Paper 2: The Ethics of Tracking People

Anthea Hucklesby (University of Leeds, UK) and Kevin Macnish (University of Twente, The Netherlands)


The ability to track the movements of individuals has become ubiquitous in modern societies via the use of smartphones which all have embedded GPS technology. Apps also exist which are designed specifically to enable individuals to track others – for example, many parents use apps to keep an ‘eye’ on their children. Whilst these uses of tracking technologies raise their own ethical issues, wearable tracking devices, which are designed specifically to be difficult to remove, heighten ethical concerns because they potentially, or actually do, involve an element of coercion. Wearers might lack capacity to consent to wearing the devices in the case of individuals with dementia or children in care or may be required to wear them as part of a court order (suspects/defendants/offenders) or because they are seeking asylum (immigration). There has been little debate about the ethical issues arising from the use of these difficult to remove devices despite their increasing use, both in terms of the number of domains in which they are deployed and the number of individuals subject to them. This paper summarises the main ethical issues connected with difficult to remove human tracking technologies.

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Tracking People Network Briefing Paper 3: Designing Systems for Tracking People

Ray Holt and Anthea Hucklesby (University of Leeds, UK)


Technologies for tracking the locations of objects have developed significantly in recent years, particularly as a result of developments in the fields of robotics and autonomous systems, data science and the internet of things. As a result, the technologies available for tracking locations, behaviours and other information about individuals are becoming increasingly sophisticated and a wider array of systems, applications and organisations are making use of these technologies.

The costs of developing bespoke tracking schemes and the commercial conditions under which they are produced creates financial pressure to find new groups to track in order to recover development costs and generate economies of scale. As a result, the design and use of tracking systems has generally been on the basis of ‘technology push’ - where tracking capabilities are developed and then applications are found – rather than ‘user pull’ - where systems are designed around the unmet needs of users with the specific intention of addressing those needs. As a result, there is a mismatch between the devices which have been developed and the needs of the individuals being tracked, potentially resulting in rejection, non-use and non-compliance.
Similar challenges are faced in the design of assistive technologies, where user-centred design methods are increasingly being adopted to address this problem. A user-centred design approach – putting the various users of a system at the heart of its development – could also usefully be applied to the design of tracking devices and the systems they operate within to ensure that they better meet the needs of those being tracked and organisations/individuals tracking them, thereby reducing the potential for non-use and non-compliance.

It is important to note that tracking does not simply refer to identifying the location of individuals or objects. Firstly, location is not the only thing that can be tracked – behaviours and browsing patterns are routinely tracked online for advertising purposes and technologies exist for tracking body functioning such as blood alcohol levels, pulse rate or activity levels. Secondly, a single measure of any property – be it location, blood alcohol level, or pulse rate – does not constitute tracking. Tracking requires that such measures are captured and monitored over a period of time. This means that tracking technologies extend beyond the underpinning technology used to measure a property, to the systems being used to capture, communicate, analyse, store and respond to this information (Potter, 2017). Designing tracking systems therefore amounts to more than the development or selection of fundamental measurement technologies and encompasses the design of wider communications and organisational systems whose interaction must be considered along with the goals, culture and environment of individuals being tracked and the people around them. The issues considered in this paper therefore apply not only to those who are designing tracking devices, but to anyone who is creating or operating tracking systems and/or deploying tracking devices.

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