Big Brother is tracking you

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IF YOU find video cameras in shopping malls, car parks and railway stations intrusive, then you will not like the newest shape of Big Brother. He, or it, has taken off into outer space - and is watching what you do via satellites and tracking systems.

Roy Hammonds, who until this week worked as a driver for the Iceland retail chain, is a victim of this trend. He was sacked after a satellite tracked him taking a 21-mile detour on the way back to his depot at Carnforth, Lancashire: the company found that he had taken the route 22 times, and sacked him for claiming the extra mileage.

A growing band of people have cause to curse the Global Positioning System's (GPS) satellites whirling unseen over our heads - the latest form of international and private police force.

Last month, the US fisheries service boarded the Sea Dragon, a fishing boat, in the western Pacific. It was sailing eight miles inside a 50-mile exclusion zone designed to protect the Hawaiian monk seal, an endangered species. Although they were searching almost 2,000 square miles of featureless ocean, the authorities knew exactly where to find the boat - because it had been fitted with a transponder which relayed its position, accurate to within 10 yards, to the GPS satellites overhead.

On the boat they found almost 10,000lbs of illegally caught swordfish and tuna, which was seized along with the boat's logbook. The fisheries men then told the captain to head, unescorted, back to port - knowing that they could track his exact position all the way.

The GPS is a network of low-level satellites originally set up by the US Defence Department to help its armed forces orientate themselves in unfamiliar territory. Each satellite orbits at a fixed point above Earth and contains an atomic clock. Each broadcasts its identity and onboard time every second. At any time at least three of the satellites will be above the horizon to an observer anywhere on Earth.

Meanwhile, around Europe, farmers have been discovering that another network of satellites is cutting down on fraud. Using cameras sensitive to frequencies outside the visible spectrum, satellites run by the National Remote Sensing Centre in Farnborough, Hampshire, have been providing pictures to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) of farms in Britain. The lenses can show exactly what crops are being grown in fields - for comparison against farmers' claims for subsidies.

The same technique is being used in other European countries. "The information gleaned is used to inform Maff as to which farms require further investigation," says the NRSC.

The advantage of satellites is that they are comparatively cheap, once launched, and, like the evidence of video cameras, are impossible to argue against. Gene Proulx, enforcement chief of the US National Marine Fisheries Service, says: "Satellite monitoring costs an average of only a dollar a day per vessel in communications costs. Compare that with the high cost of surveillance aircraft and you begin to understand its importance."

But satellite monitoring may not reveal all. Roy Hammonds is claiming unfair dismissal, on the grounds that he made his diversion for reasons of safety rather than personal gain. "I knew I had a satellite box in the cab so I wasn't trying to pull a fast one," he said last week. "I didn't think the route I was supposed to take was safe."