CAT | Location
A federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that there is an expectation of privacy in cell tower location information, and therefor it is protected by the Fourth Amendment. This runs counter to other recent rulings that allow access to the information without a warrant under the Stored Communications Act.
The recent ruling relies on precedent from the 2012 Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Jones which stated that a warrant was required to place a tracking device on a suspects car. Phone records provide the same information, just with a different technical means.
This would not apply to intelligence gathering activities, nor would it prevent access to your location information with a warrant. It is a move to recognize that our personal information, about which we have real privacy interests, is increasingly existing in the networks of third parties. Laws that assume anything sensitive would be on paper and stored in your house or on your person are absurdly outdated.
For now this is only a local precedent. The issue will almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court at some point.
TechCrunch has a nice article on the location tracking of Android based devices.
It is an “opt in” thing, but I suspect that most people are robo-approving all the questions they are asked when they are trying to get their new phones or tablets set up for the first time.
In this case, you may have given Google permission to track and maintain high resolution location information on you. That information is used to discover where you live and work, to improve weather, travel, and traffic information.
If you follow this link, you can see a track of your activities for up to the last 30 days. Really cool in a very frightening way.
ArsTechnica has a nice article on a recent ruling by the US Fifth Circuit court of appeals.
In this 2-1 decision, the court ruled that cellular location information is not covered by the fourth amendment, and does not require a warrant. The logic behind this ruling is that the information is part of business records created and stored by the mobile phone carriers in the ordinary course of their business.
Therefor, the data actually belongs to the phone company, and not to you. The Stored Communications Act says that law enforcement must get a warrant to obtain the contents of communications (the body of emails or the audio of a phone call) but not for meta-data like sender, recipient, or location.
The court suggests that if the public wants privacy of location information that they should demand (I suppose through market forces) that providers delete or anonymize the location information, and that legislation be enacted to require warrants for access to it. Until then, they say we have no expectation of privacy in that information.
The Fifth Circuit covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
This ruling conflicts with a recent New Jersey Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that law enforcement does not have that right, which ruling only applies in New Jersey.
Montana has a law requiring a warrant to obtain location information, while in California a similar bill was vetoed.
It seems very likely that one or more of these cases will go to the supreme court.
CNET’s Declan McCullagh reports on Microsoft restricting access to their Wi-Fi geolocation database shortly after this CNET article describing how to track devices using such databases. I have written about these databases before here, here, and here. Specifically Microsoft is preventing users from querying for the location of a single Wi-Fi device by specifying just one MAC addresses. Prior to the change it was possible to track an individual phone or laptop by querying for the location of that device’s MAC address.
CNET describes a test where they were able to track a device as it moved around Columbus Ohio. This would indicate that the underlying database is updated in near real time, and that it is collecting on mobile devices as well as on the fixed Wi-Fi base stations it is supposed to catalog for enhanced location services.
Tracking mobile devices can only harm the accuracy of enhanced GPS location services because they move around and could potentially give misleading information. It would be easy to eliminate such devices from the database because the type of device is discoverable from the MAC address they are collecting.
While there is no reason to track mobile devices for enhanced GPS, there are all kinds of less savory reasons to gather and track this kind of information. I note that Microsoft’s solution is to prevent access to this individualized tracking information about mobile devices rather than to stop collecting it…..
Last week I did an interview on a San Diego news program about issues with many cameras and smart phones in particular embedding very accurate location information in your pictures. If your camera (smart phone or whatever) has GPS, then the EXIF meta data in the picture will contain your location to within about 20 feet. This can be disabled, but is typically on by default.
While this can be useful when you are trying to sort and organize the pictures on your computer, the risk shows up when you start to share the pictures. By combining date and time information in the pictures I can tell if they are recent. If you are on vacation and posting on the road, an attacker can tell that you are away from home and your home probably unguarded. Pictures of your home and family can provide the exact location of your house as well.
The good news is that major sites for sharing pictures like Facebook and Flickr seem to strip out that information from the photos. It is unclear if that is intentional or just a byproduct of how they are processing and displaying the images. In any case, the data is certainly available to the sites themselves.
I strongly encourage everyone to download an EXIF editor to be able to strip this information from pictures before uploading, and to turn off location tracking in their cameras and mobile phone photo applications to prevent the capture of that information in the first place.