How Tracking Someone’s Movements Can Make Them Look Guilty, Even When They’re Not

from the context-matters dept

Last month, the NY Times published a really great article by (the always innovative) tech reporter Kashmir Hill, in which she tested out a bunch of those location tracking tools by hiding them (with permission) on her husband, Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. It was a great and eye-opening article, looking both at how well (mixed bag) some of those tracking tools worked, and how easy (often much more than you’d expect) it was to hide them on someone. Here’s just a snippet, though the whole article is worth reading.

Within two hours of my putting all the trackers in our car, my husband, who has an iPhone, got an alert about the AirTag, after running an errand.

The problem was that he couldn’t find it. The alert said he could make the AirTag play a sound, but when he attempted to do so, his phone wouldn’t connect to the device. This happened multiple times, and he started to get frustrated. “Is it in my shoe?” he asked me at one point, taking his blue Nike off and peering at it. “You have to tell me. I don’t want to destroy my shoe looking for it.”

The one time his iPhone connected to the AirTag in the car, so he could play the noise, it was so hard to tell where it was coming from that he gave up looking for it after five minutes.

The critics were right: Apple’s safeguards against nefarious use weren’t foolproof.

I had meant to write up a post about it at the time, but am kind of glad I got busy and didn’t get around to it, because now, Timm has been able to write an article from his own perspective on how all of this played out. And the key lesson learned was that even if you weren’t doing anything bad, it’s entirely possible for people to suspect you of being up to no good based solely on your location info.

As he notes, it’s quite easy to assume a lot without knowing what’s actually happening.

At lunch time, Kashmir texted me, “Are you somewhere fancy?” Perplexed, I responded no. I learned later her location trackers suggested that I had stopped at the private club Dumbo House. Imagine the interpretations! In fact, I was at a food court directly below Dumbo House eating a taco.

And that can have very serious real-world implications:

Despite what some readers said in the comments section of the article and on social media, I have a trusting wife, and I was happy to play a small role in highlighting the privacy implications of emerging technology. But when I heard and saw all of these misinterpretations about my day, I couldn’t help but think of all the people who might be surveilled without their consent, whether it’s by a spouse, an employer or law enforcement.

My mind kept wandering back to a Times investigation about a deadly incident in Kabul. In August, the Pentagon announced a drone attack against a driver who was suspected of having a bomb in his car, posing a threat to troops at the airport in Kabul. At the time, the defense officials called it a “righteous strike.” Journalists on the ground would later conclusively show the victim was not a terrorist; he was an aid worker.

This, of course, goes beyond just location tracking, but with lots of other info as well. We’ve talked for years about the “uncanny valley of advertising,” in which poor ad targeting, based on confused interpretations of data makes the ads feel creepier than is necessary. With advertising it’s maybe not such a big deal. But, in lots of other scenarios, you can see how that data in the wrong hands isn’t necessarily just dangerous for what can be done with it, but what might happen if someone totally misinterprets it.

Hill spying on Timm with his permission is, at the very least, a harmless and somewhat lighthearted way of looking at all of this. But it really does a great job at highlighting the very real risks as well. In theory, it should give people pause about interpreting data without context, but I fear it’s unlikely to do so.

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Comments on “How Tracking Someone’s Movements Can Make Them Look Guilty, Even When They’re Not”

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PaulT (profile) says:


The poster child for that is sadly Jean Charles de Menezes

In case anyone is unaware, he was a Brazilian student who was misidentified as being related to the recent bombing attempts in London. They misinterpreted some perfectly innocent actions as being suspicious, and this ultimately led to his summary execution.

That’s a pretty major and unacceptable example, but if can be murdered for essentially going about his normal day when an officer decided he was up to no good, it’s clear that any of us could be at risk of being mistaken for something while going about ours.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

“The critics were right: Apple’s safeguards against nefarious use weren’t foolproof.”

And I quote…
You’re holding it wrong.

Our products are perfect & well thought out, anyone who says otherwise just is a hater & out to get us even when they offer up proof we’ll deny it until our pants burn all the way up to our buttcheeks.

Its sad to see a corporation ignore reality this way, its downright frighting to see it coming out of Congress.

Everyone can be wrong (I mean I thought I was wrong once, but I was mistaken) but its stupid to dismiss them & their evidence without reviewing what they are telling you.

Kash (OHAI KASH!!!) and Trevor have shown the world a prime example of how location tracking can fail.
He was in a food court, not the place above it but there was no way to tell his altitude. Add in that not all tracking isn’t to within 1 meter, you can assume they are in place A when they are in place B thats close enough & feeds the notion in your head already that hes not at that store, hes at that hotel with another women because they somehow believe the tracker is perfect.

Technology can help you do things… not everything.
If you think you need technology to spy on your significant other, you need to break up before buying anything.
There is way to much wrong with your relationship to stay together if your best idea is to track them.

Technology might show you a person was near a thing, but were they really near the thing?
Perhaps Google should publish how accurate their location data is, might make geofence warrants look that much more stupid.

Anonymous Coward says:


He was in a food court, not the place above it but there was no way to tell his altitude.

There were probably lots of ways to tell his altitude, such as phone sensors (GPS and/or air pressure), smartwatch sensors if applicable, wi-fi scans, and time-based triangulation by other users in the tracking-net whose altitudes are known from these sources.

One problem, as Thad wrote, is confirmation bias. If someone’s out to “get you”, they’re not going to look at the data and complain to the tracker-maker “hey, without altitude data, this tracker could’ve been above or below the suspicious location reported.” So there’s little reason to implement the feature, even if the existing hardware could theoretically support it.

I imagine this is especially true for companies making law-enforcement products. Their customers buy these products to catch criminals, so what good is a feature that could only clear people of suspicion?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“One problem, as Thad wrote, is confirmation bias. If someone’s out to “get you”, they’re not going to look at the data and complain to the tracker-maker”

The problem there isn’t even confirmation bias – they might actually want the data to be somewhat inaccurate if they’re literally out to get you personally, so that they have some plausible deniability at the other end.

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