Cellphone GPS: Good, Bad, Worse

As with law, new tech brings its unintended consequences. And we find ourselves back to law again.  From Dan Solove at Concurring Opinions, this Wall Street Journal story deals with cellphone GPS technology.  It’s promoted as boon to parents who want to know what their sneaky teenagers are doing behind their back, but not all uses are so benign.

One morning last summer, Glenn Helwig threw his then-wife to the floor of their bedroom in Corpus Christi, Texas, she alleged in police reports. She packed her 1995 Hyundai and drove to a friend’s home, she recalled recently. She didn’t expect him to find her.

The day after she arrived, she says, her husband “all of a sudden showed up.” According to police reports, he barged in and knocked her to the floor, then took off with her car.

The police say in a report that Mr. Helwig found his wife using a service offered by his cellular carrier, which enabled him to follow her movements through the global-positioning-system chip contained in her cellphone.

It seems like such a good idea otherwise, as does so much of our burgeoning technology.  Think of all the wonderful things we can do.  Don’t think of all the bad things it can do as well.

The allegations are a stark reminder of a largely hidden cost from the proliferation of sophisticated tracking technology in everyday life—a loss of privacy.

Global-positioning systems, called GPS, and other technologies used by phone companies have unexpectedly made it easier for abusers to track their victims. A U.S. Justice Department report last year estimated that more than 25,000 adults in the U.S. are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone.

Those of us who don’t think like a stalker have no particular reason to consider the abuse of GPS tracking.  And that’s likely true of pretty much any developing technology, where we only see the shiny new benefits without considering the imposition, often in terms of privacy, of unwanted burdens. 

While the targets of stalking learn that they are being tracked by a text notification, they have no ability to disable the feature other than to turn off their phone.  Obviously, this means they can’t make or receive calls as well.  But there is someone who can cause the phones to be disabled.  Can you guess who?

Cellphone companies will deactivate a tracking function if law-enforcement officials inform them it is being used for stalking.

The installation of GPS tracking chips in cellphones wasn’t some bright marketing idea by a cellphone manufacturer.  It’s a federal requirement.

The Federal Communications Commission required U.S. cellular providers to make at least 95% of the phones in their networks traceable by satellite or other technologies by the end of 2005. The agency’s intention was to make it easier for people in emergencies to get help. GPS chips send signals to satellites that enable police and rescue workers to locate a person.

Was the FCC really all that concerned with finding you in an avalanche or a building collapse, rather zebra-like scenarios?  Perhaps, but the fact that cellular companies are more than happy to work hand in hand with  law enforcement to disable GPS location suggests that they may just as happy to enable it should law enforcement ask nicely.

That this happens probably strikes no one as a surprise, but the fact remains that we seldom consider the extent to which we’ve happily surrendered our privacy, any semblance of privacy, to private businesses and, at the unspoken largesse of those businesses, to the government.  Don’t even ask how easy it is for the government to get its hands on the content of your smartphones.

Technology may have given us a window to the world, but it’s also given the government a window to us.  Don’t forget about that when the next shiny must-have toy comes along.  After all, if you can stare at your iPad, what makes you think you’re iPad can’t stare back at you?

2 thoughts on “Cellphone GPS: Good, Bad, Worse

  1. Chief

    Seriously, the first thing I would do if I was ever in some kind of trouble is toss my cellphone.

    There doesn’t seem to be any solution that ensures our “right” to privacy apart from being a Luddite. Even a potential feature like the ability to turn off the GPS function could probably be overridden if, like you said, law enforcement asked really nicely.

    Combine this with the mandatory databases in many new DNA bills and we’re not far off from thoughtcrimes and the Minority Report. The next 20 or so years will be very interesting times for the criminal justice system (as opposed to now).

  2. SHG

    Minority Report scares the crap out of me.  Way more truth in there than anyone wants to admit.

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