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GPS irks NY taxi drivers, plan to strike in September

New York taxi drivers have promised to strike sometime in September if GPS technology is installed in 13,000 cabs as planned.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, representing about 8,400 drivers, has likened the GPS systems to privacy-invading ankle bracelets worn by homebound prisoners. Drivers are worried their bosses will track their whereabouts even when they are off-duty, according to statements by six drivers and Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai. The alliance plans to announce a strike date in mid-August.

However, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has touted several benefits of the GPS and related technology for accepting credit cards for taxi fares. Riders could watch the route the taxi is taking real time on a screen, using the system called eTaxi, according to TLC officials.

In addition to allowing riders to pay by credit card, TLC said the system will eliminate paper forms for recording pickups and drop-offs and will provide real-time traffic information. In addition, GPS could be used by police to track down taxis in emergencies, TLC officials said.

Cities that already have such systems have reported drivers make more tips, TLC added, noting that the majority of taxi drivers have already chosen a system prior to the Oct. 1 date when installations begin. Four vendors and integrators are listed as providing the technology on TLC's Web site, and a spokesman confirmed yesterday that the program is still moving forward despite the strike threat.

At a press conference last week, driver Lea Acey said the GPS system is designed to beep all day if a driver doesn't log in "like an ankle bracelet they put on criminals."

Fleets of mobile workers, such as utility workers and taxi drivers, have raised concerns about GPS in recent years for invading their privacy, but stories have also circulated about the benefits of the technology if a vehicle breaks down at night or in bad conditions. A Sprint Nextel Corp. official said a GPS record was used to defend a trash truck driver accused of causing an accident in a residential neighborhood, because the vehicle was shown with GPS records to have been nowhere near the accident.

"It's reasonable for an employer to deploy GPS," said Craig Mathias, an analyst at The Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., and a Computerworld columnist, who has been a consultant on GPS projects and has heard many of the privacy objections.

"This is not 1984 or tracking citizens," he said. "It is tracking people with objects and it will improve efficiency." Companies can use GPS to help drivers find addresses, but it also can be used to dispatch another vehicle closer to a location where it is needed.

At the same time, Mathias said he can understand the workers' concerns. "People are rightly worried about Big Brother and they don't want to be tracked, and it should not be used unless consent is given."