Car 54, where are you?

Worried about what your teen is up to in the family sedan? Fretting over your fickle spouse’s whereabouts? A local company’s cutting-edge spy device could help provide some answers.

The Cyber Tracker, developed by the Asheville-based Homeland Integrated Security Systems, puts Big Brother right on your dashboard. “It really is a revolutionary device,” says Chief Information Officer Brian Riley.

True, the compact gadget’s primary use is as a tracking system for use in ports and on ships, trucks and fleet vehicles owned by governments and private companies.

But increasingly, the Cyber Tracker — which carries a $599 price tag and a $30 monthly service charge — is being peddled to school systems (for use in buses) and parents (to monitor their children’s driving habits, where they go and who they’re with).

“The list of potential applications … keeps getting longer and longer each day,” reports CEO Frank A. Moody II.

The 1-by-5-by-5-inch Cyber Tracker could be on the job without the driver or passengers even knowing it was there. And don’t even think about trying to disable it: The battery-powered unit is virtually tamper-proof and will sound an alarm if someone tries, HISS officials say.

He knows when you’re awake

Unlike popular on-board navigation systems such as OnStar, TomTom and Magellan, the Cyber Tracker won’t tell you how to get to Oshkosh. But the savvy little box can do a whole lot of other things, notes Troy Van Dyke, Homeland’s vice president of product development.

Mounted on the dashboard, the Cyber Tracker can tell whoever’s on the receiving end — port officials, your boss or your mother — exactly where the vehicle is at any given moment. Information can be accessed via a computer, wireless phone or PDA.

The versatile unit can also hook into a car’s computer, just as your mechanic does when conducting a diagnostic test. This provides information about the speed, the engine, brakes, doors, lights and anything else controlled by the vehicle’s on-board brain.

But that’s only the beginning: The Cyber Tracker also offers “geo-fencing,” which enables the administrator to designate specific areas off-limits. If the assigned Cyber Tracker enters that space, an alarm will sound. Conversely, it’s possible to “fence” a vehicle or asset — triggering an alarm if the defined area is breached. In addition, the device can report its position at predetermined intervals ranging from minutes to hours.

The system can notify the person monitoring the computer screen via audible alarm, phone or pager. The Cyber Tracker transmits its information and data wirelessly over a variety of secured networks. Simultaneous remote monitoring from multiple locations is also possible.

But what makes the unit unique among on-board electronic devices is the Cyber Tracker’s “push-to-talk” feature, which allows Mom or your manager to converse with the driver. And the latest version of the device includes an ethernet port that can accommodate a webcam, enabling whoever’s monitoring the action to actually see what’s happening inside the vehicle.

Safe and sound?

In a time of heightened security concerns, the ability to track ships, trucks and other containers that could be carrying dangerous cargo is important. And the recent announcement by the state of California that it had lost 30,000 government vehicles out of a fleet of 80,000 points to a need to protect assets bought with tax dollars.

Meanwhile, amid growing concern about violence in schools, systems around the country are turning to technology. Some have already equipped their buses with cameras. And the South Carolina Department of Education — one of only two states that actually owns its bus fleet (North Carolina is the other) — is pilot-testing the Cyber Tracker in a handful of buses, as are school officials in Knox County, Tenn., says Van Dyke.

As for private employers who maintain vehicle fleets, even civil libertarians and privacy advocates maintain that such monitoring is OK as long as it’s done solely for the sake of management and safety during work hours, says Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the nonprofit National Workrights Institute in Princeton, N.J.

And Executive Director Jennifer Rudinger of the ACLU of North Carolina sounds a qualified agreement, though not without some concerns. “Unfortunately, we have less and less privacy any time we step out of our house these days,” she notes. “Parents and private citizens who choose to install this technology in their private vehicles for safety reasons would not appear to be violating anyone’s legal rights to privacy, because a vehicle owner can certainly monitor the use of his or her own property. To the extent that commercial vehicles will be fitted with this technology, however, we hope that employees and passengers would at least be notified of the presence of surveillance technology.”

Riley, however, says that’s not his company’s concern. “Our stance is, we develop the technology and the product. What people use it for is their business. Sure it can be ‘Big Brother,’ but it’s really a commerce tool.”

Formed in 2004, HISS is headquartered at Biltmore Park in south Asheville, where all administrative functions are handled. The Cyber Tracker is assembled in China, using software made in Kansas City, hardware made in Cambridge, England, and an operating system made in Tampa. With about 130 employees worldwide, the publicly traded company has marketing offices in a handful of U.S. cities, as well as in the Middle East, says Riley. And while HISS also makes devices that detect explosives and radiation, the Cyber Tracker remains the company’s star product — and the one with the most market potential.

To date, however, HISS has sold only about 75 Cyber Trackers to private consumers nationwide, although ports and governments in the United States and abroad have bought thousands. Locally, the units have been available through the Homeland-owned Cyber Cynergy stores on Airport Road in Asheville and on the Spartanburg Highway in Hendersonville. (The chain, which also has stores in Georgia and Florida, sells computers, cell phones and other electronic devices.)

And though the parental market is potentially large, it doesn’t loom large in the company’s marketing plans. This year, HISS expects to sell 25,000 Cyber Trackers, almost all of them to governments and businesses worldwide, Riley reports.

But several big cell-phone carriers that have signed on to the technology have other plans. On April 3, they launched their own consumer-marketing push, promoting the product to millions of their customers nationwide. “It will make [Cyber Tracker] available through other channels and basically give us a nationwide sales force,” says Riley.

I spy

Privacy concerns notwithstanding, a look at motor-vehicle statistics could drive some parents of teens to invest in surveillance technology.

In the United States, crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-olds, who have the highest rate of fatal crashes. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 3,620 drivers in this age group died in car crashes in 2004; about one-quarter of those drivers were intoxicated. And in 2002 (the latest data available), crashes involving these youthful drivers did more than $40 billion worth of damage, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Still, at least one Asheville parent questions the wisdom of spying on one’s children. “It seems kind of creepy to me,” says Michele Dohse. One of her three kids is already driving, and another will soon be ready to get behind the wheel.

Good parenting before the child reaches driving age is key, she maintains. And if Dohse wants to keep tabs on her child, a cell phone is a good (and less-intrusive) option for knowing where they are and what they’re up to.

“I think [Cyber Tracker] would be a good tool for a parent that’s really concerned about their kid — maybe a kid that’s already been in trouble,” she says. “But I think it could be a little bit destructive. If a kid’s old enough to drive, you should be able to trust them enough — unless they’ve proven otherwise. … I guess I don’t feel comfortable with that level of micromanagement. Once they get to be 16, 17 years old, parents need to be letting go.”

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