GPS, triangulating and tracking technology is how Google Maps can show you “where you are” on your iPhone and give directions to your destination. Location-tracking technology is being used by worried parents, suspicious spouses, violent stalkers, and some car dealerships to surreptitiously follow individuals. Also, last year, shopping centers in the UK used mobile phone info to track what stores people visited and how long they stayed. Some companies are trying to safeguard individuals’ location data. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has praised Google Latitude and Loopt and their approaches to protecting location privacy.
“Anything with a computer is going to keep a log,” [Jeff Fischbach] says.
Fischbach is a forensic technologist. Lawyers eagerly pay for his ability to extract evidence from everyday devices — he’s even checked alibis on kitchen appliances. But when it comes to tracking where people go, he says, the most common source of data is in your pocket.
“Cell phones leave a data trail,” he says. “And it’s becoming standard for major police departments and the feds to use this data.” […]
Newer phones come with optional GPS, the satellite-based location service, which users can choose to turn on, though at a considerable cost to battery life.
Even with the GPS off, phone location is getting more precise. Some phones use more than one tower to triangulate their locations. Others “find” themselves by locating nearby Wi-Fi signals and checking them against a master catalog of Wi-Fi signals with known coordinates.
Access to the data can vary. Fischbach told NPR that some cell companies require subpoenas while others require warrants. “”I even managed to get that sort of information for a defendant recently just by calling up and speaking to someone who was pretty friendly,” he says.
In May, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled (pdf) that the State Constitution required New York police to obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle. The court said, “What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits.” The ruling is based on the state, not federal, Constitution, so it will apply only in the state of New York. (For more analysis of the case, read this piece by Cornell Law Professor Sherry F. Colb.)
In March, the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital and the Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted an amicus brief (pdf) in a federal case concerning warrantless use of a GPS device. The groups said, “GPS technology provides police with a powerful and inexpensive method to remotely track in great detail the movements of individuals by foot or by automobile, over an extensive period, and across public and private areas. Without a warrant requirement, an individual’s every movement could be subject to remote monitoring, and permanent recording, at the sole discretion of any police officer.”