Matthew Jones looks into the pros and cons of firms using mobile phone locating systems...
Advances in mobile phone tracking technology are turning British firms into cyber sleuths as they keep a virtual eye on their staff, vehicles and stock.
In the past few years, companies that offer tracking services have seen an explosion in interest from businesses keen to take advantage of technological developments in the name of operational efficiency.
The gains, say the converted, are many, ranging from knowing whether workers have been "held up" in the pub rather than in a traffic jam, to being able to quickly locate staff and reroute them if necessary.
Not everybody is happy about being monitored, however, and civil rights group Liberty says the growth of tracking raises data privacy concerns.
Kevin Brown, operations director of tracking firm Followus, said there was nothing covert about tracking, thanks to strict regulations.
"An employee has to consent to having their mobile tracked. A company can't request to track a phone without the user knowing," he said.
"Under government rules we send random alerts to each phone we track, informing the user they are being monitored."
All that is needed to trace a mobile phone is a computer with an internet connection. Once a phone is activated for tracking, it becomes a mobile electronic tag and its approximate position can be followed using the service provider's website.
Although there was a flurry of interest when the service was launched in 2003 from private individuals suspicious about whether their partners really were working late at the office, the would-be sleuths were quickly disappointed.
"You can forget about borrowing your partner's phone and 'consenting' to being tracked because the random alerts will blow that ruse," said Mr Brown.
As well as wanting to make sure staff are working when and where they are supposed to, many firms say they are increasingly concerned about employee safety.
"Some businesses want to keep an eye on their staff. Some feel they have an obligation to know where staff are in case of emergencies," Mr Brown added.
He said Followus, launched in 2003, now had 50,000 subscribers and the number was growing by 5,000 a month.
It tracks mobile phone SIM cards with accuracy that varies depending on the saturation of SIM masts - in city centres the technology can pinpoint a phone to within a hundred metres, while in rural locations it might be several miles.
The most obvious application of the technology is for freight and delivery firms, but there has also been interest among small businesses that have tradesmen or sales staff on the road.
Andrew Overton at Verilocation said many of his company's 60,000 subscribers, mostly small businesses, wanted to know where their workers were for security reasons and for better asset management.
"There is increasing awareness about the importance of knowing where your staff are in case of incidents like the July London bombings. Knowing where your nearest employee is to a customer is also important. It allows a company to improve efficiency."
Mr Overton said tracking also allowed bosses to check whether workers were taking the quickest route to a job or whether the expenses they submitted matched the miles they had driven.
Not everyone is so enthusiastic about the growth of tracking.
Civil rights group Liberty said there could be privacy and human rights issues surrounding the use of tracking particularly given the unequal relationship between employee and employer.
"There could well be worries that staff feel coerced into agreeing to be monitored. The technology is neutral, it's the way it is used that is the problem," said Liberty's Jen Corlew.
She said the development of tracking was worrying because it was being driven by the marketplace and not by workers' rights.
"We are already seeing an ebbing away of employee rights and we at Liberty will be keeping a close eye on this area to see if companies who do monitor their staff are complying with the regulations," she said.
Logistics expert Richard Wilding said keeping track of staff and equipment could produce significant cost benefits to companies if they used the information effectively.
"There are benefits in service enhancements - providing a better service to customers and all the attendant advantages that can bring and also operational gains from managing people and assets better," said Mr Wilding, a professor of supply chain risk management at Cranfield School of Management.
According to Mr Wilding, a company that knows where its staff are and can work out whether they will make appointment dates and then communicate with customers will win out over those that do not.
"Giving customers transparency of where their delivery or tradesman is in the supply chain enhances the value of what a company can offer customers," he added.
"Customers who don't trust their suppliers can over-order, or hold extra inventory, or shop around for alternatives."
Operationally, companies that use tracking can gain by optimising their staff.
"If you know where a vehicle or employee is and a customer calls you, you have the opportunity to reroute."
Mr Wilding said large-scale truckers have been using similar techniques for years, but using expensive satellite navigation equipment.
"Mobile phone tracking is far cheaper and produces similar business benefits."