Cell Phone Tracking, Privacy, And Learning Not To Look

from the peek-a-boo dept

Of all the Fridays for burying news, the one after Thanksgiving has got to be among the most effective. So it's a shame that the Washington Post broke the news then: law enforcement officials have been routinely asking for and receiving tracking data from cell phone companies without having to demonstrate probable cause. From the article:

Instead of seeking warrants based on probable cause, some federal prosecutors are applying for orders based on a standard lower than probable cause derived from two statutes: the Stored Communications Act and the Pen Register Statute, according to judges and industry lawyers.

In some ways this is unsurprising. As with the administration's avoidance of FISA courts as it mines data, this is an example of law enforcement identifying a new tool and attempting to use it without engaging existing oversight structures. Nobody likes doing paperwork, after all. But this particular issue is also emblematic of the reexamination of the public/private divide that our increasingly data-rich world is prompting.

It'd be a stretch to interpret the decision to buy a cellphone with non-optional E911 tracking capabilities as an agreement to publicly disclose your location to the world. But fuzzier cases are looming. Consider Yahoo's FireEagle initiative, which will provide an integrated platform for plotting your location and an API that'll allow approved third parties to observe it. To many it may seem incomprehensible that individuals would opt in to such tracking — how hard is it to enter your address at pizzahut.com, anyway? — but there's no doubt that these services are coming. Some mobile carriers like Boost and Helio already offer GPS friend-locator services, after all.

So if I decide to let a third party know my location — a cab company, for instance — does that mean that law enforcement can retrieve it from them without a warrant? What if I let my family know where I am? What if I post my movements to my Facebook feed but only allow my contacts to observe them? For that matter, what if a firm writes a program and observes that some of its company-issued cell phones are regularly being carried into Narcotics Anonymous meetings and distributes that information internally?

Doubtless all of these examples could be interpreted through existing law. That approach has worked well enough so far: treating an email as a letter works fine, and an IM conversation can be roughly thought of as a phone call. But new types of semi-private communication will pose a challenge to this approach, as will the sheer volume and accessibility of the data that can be gathered about an individual.

It seems clear that individuals are increasingly publishing information about themselves that, while obtainable, should only be formally considered in certain cases — if, that is, we're going to maintain any semblance of privacy. It will be interesting to see where these lines are drawn. Cell phone tracking data is being used to put people in jail, which makes it a good candidate for prompting new laws and judicial decisions. But it seems likely that as we record more and more of our private lives online we'll not only need new privacy laws, but new privacy norms as well.

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Comments on “Cell Phone Tracking, Privacy, And Learning Not To Look”

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AC says:

I know many, many don’t/won’t agree. But I feel that if you are not doing anything wrong or anything that you are embarassed about, then what is the harm of being tracked?

If you are embarrassed about going to a adult bookstore/theater then don’t go.

Being able to track an individuals movements would solve alot of our current crimes, and allow us to track missing or kidnapped individuals.

I know there is also a dark side to this, I am not an oblivious to this. But As with anything, it can be turned and used for ‘evil’ just as easy as it is used for ‘good’.

I think it would help most people make those ‘moral/unmoral’ decisions much easier if they knew they could be tracked at anytime. Cheating on your wife? Maybe not, now that she can track your location. Child not coming home at the proper hour? Track him/her find out where he/she is.

I just see so many great ways that this can help, but of course for every good reason I list, someone will list a bad one to counter it. So let’s all just fall back into the stone age, and pound rocks together o.k.?

BTR1701 (profile) says:

Re: Embarrassed

> I feel that if you are not doing anything
> wrong or anything that you are embarassed
> about, then what is the harm of being tracked?
> If you are embarrassed about going to a adult
> bookstore/theater then don’t go.

Why should we all be limited to only engaging in activities and going to places that can be comfortably broadcast to the entire world?

If I’m an alcoholic, why should I have to worry that everyone will find out about it if I go to an AA meeting?

The fact that something may be embarrassing doesn’t necessarily make it illicit and it sure doesn’t make it any of the government’s damned business.

Hell, even going to an adult bookstore is legal and if a person wants to go there (although I can’t imagine why they would, what with the free porn all over the internet), then that’s their business and no one else’s. Certainly not the business of some government hack.

ac says:

Re: Re: Embarrassed

It is as simple as this. If you are so ashamed to go somewhere that you do not want others to know about, then why go there?
You can be found out about a number of ways, this is just another avenue. Also most of the ‘data’ mining that is done thru this, never reaches human eyes anyway. It is all just information that a computer sifts thru.
What do you people have to be afraid of. I understand the concept of privacy. But really, why does it kill you so, to have a computer and/or a intelligence agent know that you go to the local quickie mart at night?

It just baffles me.

Gregory Harrison says:

Re: I spy

The idea of being in a free us is to move with out prying eyes and if we need to give up ower freedom just that easy why are we fighting, in order for us to tiallirate foraners is to give up the freedom of an indivial, then we have become soft, we are no longer strong, we have be come weak, animals in a cage to be experimented on!!!Give us bake ower freedom get those who are the criminals

Ac says:

Re: Indeed #1 ..

And your suggestion to progressing responsibly is? As we have seen any countermeasure any company puts into place to thwart the ill use of anything is overcome/disabled/loopholed. Someone is always circumventing the system.

As for my stone age crack, yes it was a crazily overdone exaggeration, that was the point of it.

The problem being that utopia will always be hacked. Evil will always exist, and therefore as so many before me have said. “We can never have anything nice.”

Show me a day when something works as intended, and I will show you that everyones pockets are lined with ill gained wealth.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Indeed #1 ..

I don’t want the gov to have records of how often I insult them, lest I be arrested for dissidence, or suspected terrorism. Or any of a thousand trumped up charges.

First rule of being a police man: Everyone is guilty of SOMETHING.

And remember: if it can be recorded, it can probably be modified. How would you like it if I (as a hacker) replace my cell-phone movement logs with yours? And then do something really wrong? And they have an iron hard case because there is eidence putting you at the scene (the logs)

Also: Dur going to an adult shop embaresses people. It’s not socialy aceptable, even though there is nothing wrong with it. There are all these things that are neither evil nor good which are not socialy aceptable, and people tend not to want others to know

finally: the information should be there if they have reason to suspect you. With a warrent to collect, you know? But… I keep my life fairly compartementalised. I don’t want shit bleeding over between when I hang out with my freinds, when I hang with my buds online, and when I hang with my co-workers. They’re different people into different things. I don’t want my habits, my dirty little secretes, public knowlage. you know? I don’t want to live my life like a rock star.

I don’t want religious nuts to know I advocate killing baby jeasus, and bowing before idols aside from JHVA and mocking Shiva and…. well, you understand.

Captain Nemo says:

Re: Re: meh.

Speaking of the stone age… What happened in your cave, STAYED in your cave.

But seriously. Did it occur to you that some peoples definitions of what is ‘moral’ differ from yours? Whether or not it’s okay for someone to go to an adult theatre, they shouldn’t be shunned by their peers just to satisfy your moral sense. Secondly, innocent people don’t need to be tracked. Major time waster, right there. It’s up to the court to decide who should be tracked. That’s why they need to get a warrant. Oh, and presumably, the court will issue warrant to get back your ill gained wealth. If, that is, there’s actually any evidence.

Bill says:

“treating an email as a letter works fine, and an IM conversation can be roughly thought of as a phone call.”

IM is the same as email. Voice is a media. The fact that you can IM and send email on a phone doesn’t make either of them a “phone call”.

Regarding the article… like it or not, facism is all the rage. Whether its the BSA, RIAA, MPAA, CIA, FBI or Bush – all are making a mockery of the US and it’s constitution.

Anonymous Coward says:

This will do nothing to stop crimes.

What this will do is intrude on the lives of everyday citizens, collect personal information about them, and then that information will be sold to corporations as advertising data, all paid for by our tax dollars. Meanwhile, crimes will continue to be committed, as usual.

Criminals, for the most part, aren’t stupid. There are big think tanks where hundreds of thousands of criminals talk with each other everday. Knowledge is shared and improved upon daily. These places are called prisons.

Tracking the cell-phone data of law-abiding citizens will do nothing to stop real criminals. But the data will be sold to any company willing to pay the current asking price.

TheDock22 says:

I agree that tracking people by their cell phones is a dangerous road to go down. It would be easy for criminals to use this to their advantage. Think about the mafia, child molesters, stalkers…they would all have an advantage.

I have nothing to hide, but I also don’t want the general public to know where I am all the time. That is a little too “big brother-ish” for me.

chris (profile) says:

re: #1

having this kind of tracking data in berlin in the 30’s would have made the holocaust much easier, not to mention way more effective… just look up the phones that went to synagogues and kosher markets and send a team to their address.

i’ll bet you also think cash should be illegal, that way you can track everyone’s spending habits… maybe put a 666 on everyone’s forehead and don’t let them buy or sell anything without it.

i’m sure that sounds like a great idea doesn’t it?

PhillyCheese says:

Cell Phone Tracking, Privacy ...

For those of you finished with this topic, please accept my apology for stirring it up again. I have only come across this thread, for the first time, today and I am looking for advice.
If any of you think the sharing of electronic information is a good thing, let me share with you, my story. My ex-girlfriend works for a government agency. I recently visited her and during our conversations, she asked several questions regarding my whereabouts on several days, during our relationship. Dissatisfied and impatient with several answers, she commenced, accurately dictating dates, locations times and on two of the occasions, the name of at least one person I was with.
I am currently drafting a letter to the department of justice expressing my concern over her possible use of work resources and equipment, but I have nothing to confirm what/how she is doing this.
Does anyone out there know what I can do to determine if my phone records or calls are being listened to? Can I hire a civilian investiugator that would be able to track someone? Or perhaps bugging has taken place, in my personal vehicle. The only constants in her reporting, were my car and my cell phone. Help!

Lisa Calvert says:

Anybody remember the constitution?

OK. Bad is bad and good is good, right? Wrong! Everything is relative and we are, after all, individuals – at least until they manage to implant the lobotomizing chip that makes mindless C3PO’s -minus the sense of humor – out of all of us. And bless my republican heart, I still hold to the liberal belief that whether child molester, thief, murderer or petty criminal – we are ALL, as US citizens SUPPOSED to be entitled to due process of law and the protection of our constitutional rights. What about a little fish with personal and emotional problems – more than anyone in the world knows even though they work and are productive and in charge of their life as far as people around them know – but in actuality misunderstood by many – plagued by the lies of people determined to defame me solely because of my divorcee status just because they are so black hearted they lie awake at night….just hating. Something I don’t have it in me to do to someone else. Suppose someone with a little status gets it in for me….bugs my cell… whatever…makes an EXAMPLE out of me for something stupid or consensual. Knowing nobody will come to my rescue since the lies have spread, intensified, and are manifested to all the community as ABSOLUTE Fact. Well, I sound schizophrenic, but I assure you I am not. I have always found comfort in the belief that even I would be protected by our founding fathers authoring and that truth, justice and the american way would prevail…. How many of us are NOT guilty of SOMETHING? If you are scrutinized daily everyone has something embarrassing – if not illegal to hide. There are corrupt people in law enforcement. I hold to the hope that they are as I have always thought, however…. very small in number. WE NEED PROTECTION. And yes, God help us, even at the risk of some of the really bad guys going free. They manage to do so anyway.

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