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Using GPS for Tracking People

Until recently, tracking people with Global Positioning System technology required purchasing expensive hardware and software. Now, complete solutions are available through cellular service providers, public and private agencies. This is all you need to know about how to keep up with the whereabouts of your family, friends and employees.

Social Tracking

Screenshot of Latitude on iGoogle

In February 2009, Google launched Latitude, enabling people to track friends, family, employees using smartphones - with or without, GPS. Today, there are numerous applications for tracking your friends that also integrate with social networks.

Who do you want to track?

Cell phone Tracking by Authorized Agencies

Tracking Children

Teen Tracking (a.k.a. Family Locator)

Tracking Alzheimer Patients

Tracking Your Stuff (a.k.a. Asset Tracking)

More you should know about GPS tracking

Cell Phone Tracking by Authorized Agencies

I get a lot emails about about this, so here are my top three answers:

  1. If you do not want to be tracked, do not carry a tracking device (i.e. cell phone, iPad, wi-fi enabled computer, etc).
  2. In an emergency, it is possible for law enforcement and possibly private investigative services to "ping" a cell phone reporting it's approximate location - as long as the phone is turned on and connected to the network. This capability is not available to private individuals without prior permission, proper equipment and service subscription.
  3. If you want to track someone, get their permission and use one of the products listed on this page.

Tracking Children

If your child already has a cell phone, consider Family Locator plans (below) offered by cellular service providers. If you child is non-verbal, suffers from autism, Down syndrome, other or cognitive disorder and is prone to wander then my first recommendation is SafetyNet by LoJack. SafetyNet is administered by public service agencies, it uses simple radio frequency transmitter worn as a bracelet or anklet, and it has long battery life. However, this service may not be available in your area.

My second choice would be Amber Alert GPS which has been developed specifically for use by parents tracking children. This product like many tracking services will send an email or text message when the child leaves or enters an area. Amber Alert GPS takes this one step further, sending a message when the the child approaches the address of a known sex offender.

Teen Tracking (a.k.a. Family Locator)

Most cellular service providers offer parental controls, including tracking. Typically, you will pay $ to $$ in addition to your regular bill to filter content, control use, and monitor phone location.

"AT&T FamilyMap provides peace of mind by being able to conveniently locate a family member from your wireless phone or PC and know that your family's information is secure and private."

"Sprint Family Locator - See their real-time locations on interactive satellite maps from any PC or web-enabled mobile phone."

"T-Mobile FamilyWhere –Rest easy knowing your kids are where they should be. With FamilyWhere, you can find your family members using their mobile phone’s location."

"Version Family Locator –Peace of mind is right at your fingertips. Securely locate your family members' locations from your Version Wireless Device or the web. The locate feature provides you with the information you need to stay aware and stay in touch."

There are numerous other apps, like Find my iPhone and Wheres my Droid that do not have all the features of premium locator services, but they are not as expensive either.

Tracking Alzheimer Patients

If your loved one has Alzheimer's disease or dementia and prone to wander my first recommendation is SafetyNet by LoJack. SafetyNet is administered by public service agencies, it uses simple radio frequency transmitter worn as a bracelet or anklet, and it has long battery life. However, this service may not be available in your area.

Tracking Your Stuff (a.k.a. Asset Tracking)

As a good, general purpose tracking device for vehicles, pets and valuables, I recommend the Garmin GTU 10 GPS Tracking Unit. The GTU 10 is small, lightweight and waterproof. It easily attaches to a backpack or pet collar and it comes with one year of tracking service.

More you should know about GPS tracking

Here are some other things to keep in mind when deciding what products and services are right for you:


All of the tracking systems mentioned above require batteries. Systems that have a GPS receiver and connect to cellular network will consume the most power, requiring you to change or charge batteries every few hours at worst, or days at best. Only the SafetyNet by LoJack requires battery change on a monthly basis. Some products have extended-life battery option, but this will increase the overall size of the device. Some products may allow you to specify how often location reports are sent, which can save battery life since power consumption is less when while in stand-by mode. A few products feature a motion sensor which can also save battery life by only sending reports when the device is moving.

Usage Costs

The costs associated with using the GPS for people tracking, include equipment costs, setup/activation fees, and usually network access subscriptions. In addition, your service may charge for each location report or allot you a limited number of reports and charge you a premium for overages.

The best deal I found for a general purpose tracking device, is the Garmin GTU 10 GPS Tracking Unit which includes 1 year free tracking.

Tracking Application "Persistence"

A tracking application on a cell phone typically must be enabled by the user. Depending on your equipment, the application may persist - remaining enabled when the phone is turned on after having been turned off. This feature is particularly handy if you do not want to instruct the person using the phone how to turn tracking on and off.

Passive Tracking

Some tracking devices will record location data internally so that it can be downloaded later. Also referred to "data logging," which can provide location data even when the device has traveled outside the wireless network. Passive tracking is becoming a more common feature and is worth asking for.

Assisted GPS (AGPS)

Some tracking devices can receive ephemeris (satellite position) information on the GPS satellites, which speeds up the initial position fix. AGPS information may also help in finding satellites and getting positions in adverse conditions, like inside buildings, urban canyons, and dense tree canopy.


GeoFencing is a term used to describe a feature that enables the cell phone to only start tracking when it has entered or exited a predefined region, avoiding unnecessary tracking when your people are close to home, office, or school. Or GeoFencing may also mean that an alert is sent when their phone crosses a virtual fence. For example, Amber Alert GPS services will send email or text message when the the person being tracked enters an area near a known sex offender.

Speed Alerts

Some service providers provide email or text message alerts when specified speed limits are exceeded. This is particularly of interest to parents of young drivers.

Tracking Map Quality

Most location services do not produce their own maps. Instead they purchase or license mapping products from other companies. Several services use popular online maps and satellite imagery. Satellite images, compared to street maps, will give you a better idea of the surrounding environment. For example, a satellite image better depicts the difference between an industrial area and a residential neighborhood. If choosing between products/services, compare what the maps will look like, and if satellite images are provided.

Mobile to Mobile Tracking

Most tracking solutions enable you to receive alerts and access tracking maps from your phone. Make sure to find out if the product you are interested in is compatible your your specific phone.

The ability to track someone using a using a cell phone, by using another cell phone, conjures up a chase scene from an old movie, where our hero is sitting in the back seat of a moving car with a radar-type device in a briefcase, shouting turn-by-turn directions to the driver in hot pursuit of evil villains.


Also note that Wi-fi complements the cellular grid, providing additional conduits for location information to pass through to the 'net. Your phone has a unique electronic identifier and - if enabled - can pass this information, locating you within the geographic area covered by the hotspot. There should be little doubt that the vast radioscape of urban environments is being mapped and your participation in location-based services is helping providers develop programs that can track a phone out of cell range and hidden from GPS satellites. Always read the terms of service before deciding to agree.

I hope this helps!

Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

Doug Adomatis
Owner/Admin Travel By GPS LLC
Greenville County, South Carolina

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