You're being watched

Real-time tracking sounds sinister, but James Harkin sees it as a force for good

Miniature phones you carry in your pocket and that use satellite tracking technology to pinpoint your location to just a few centimetres; itty-bitty tags that supermarkets use to track their products; bus passes that simultaneously monitor your body temperature to find out how often you are having sex.

I dropped in the last one to perk things up a little. But am I alone in suppressing an intellectual yawn every time I hear of a scary, tabloid-style investigation into the perils of our "surveillance society"? Privacy campaigners are quite right that we need to keep an eye on our civil liberties, but their arguments have become stale in the mouths of press hacks - when they are not bludgeoning us with gobbledegook about technology, they are hamming it up by implying some sinister conspiracy that needs to know about our every movement. Part of you wants to pat them on the back, but secretly you are getting bored and turning the page, and thinking that it might be a lost cause anyway.

One of the problems with this "surveillance society" rhetoric is that it loses sight of how new technology might be put to good use. A year ago, at a coffee bar in Soho, William Mitchell, a devout progressive and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tried to explain some of the possibilities to me. He and his MIT colleagues, he said, were working on an ambitious experiment in Rome to use data from people's mobile phones, along with GPS devices mounted on taxis and buses, to create a dynamic tracking tool capable of producing a real-time map of how the city is used by its citizens.

MIT's "Real Time Rome" caused quite a stir when it launched in September at this year's Venice Biennale (take a look at http://senseable.mit.edu/realtimerome ). Mitchell showed me an elementary version of it on his laptop when we met in Soho, and it looked amazing. If widely available, this kind of digital mapping could be used to alleviate congestion of traffic or people. In time, however, it could become a gold mine for architects, urban planners and designers who want to build better cities - or even for artists who want to intervene in the urban landscape.

The possibilities are endless, but only if we overcome our paranoia about surveillance and place proper controls on how we use information. It is perfectly possible to do so: the MIT project, for example, uses data that has been stripped of anything that might identify anyone personally. But sometimes we might want to know exactly what is under surveillance. At the beginning of September, the Financial Times reported that a Canadian NGO had used digital mapping technology to prove that a good deal of Peruvian coffee with an "ethical" or "fair trade" label slapped on it was nothing of the sort. The moral? Be sus picious of tracking devices by all means - but everything depends on who is being tracked, why, and who wants to know.