TAG | location
The ability to use remotely loaded images in HTML emails for tracking has been known for years, but perhaps not widely known.
The On The Media: TLDR podcast just re-surfaced the issue in the above article, where they talk about a free Gmail plugin called Streak, which provides this capability.
It automatically embeds the hidden images in emails you send, then lets you see when and even where the recipient opens them.
Because they appear to use IP address based locations, you can block the “where” part by using Anonymizer Universal.
You can block this tracking completely by turning off the loading of images in your emails. Of course, if you then choose to load images, know that you are also enabling tracking. If you block image loading you will also find that your email become much less attractive and significantly more difficult to read.
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.
ZDNet has published a nice article on 4 key privacy settings under iOS 7 that have defaults you might want to change. Mostly related to location information.
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.
The ACLU just posted an article about a recent federal magistrate judge’s ruling. It is a somewhat bizarre case.
The DEA had an arrest warrant for a doctor suspected selling prescription pain killer drugs for cash. They then requested a court order to obtain his real time location information from his cell provider.
The judge went along, but then published a 30 page opinion stating that no order or warrant should have been required for the location information because the suspect had no expectation of location privacy. If he wanted privacy, all he had to have done is to turn off his phone (which would have prevented the collection of the information at all, not just established his expectation).
So, if this line of reasoning is picked up and becomes precedent, it is clear than anyone on the run needs to keep their phone off and / or use burner phones paid for with cash.
My concern is that, if there is no expectation of privacy, is there anything preventing government entities from requesting location information on whole populations without any probable cause or court order.
While I think that the use of location information in this case was completely appropriate, I would sleep better if there was the check and balance of the need for a court order before getting it.
This is another situation where technology has run ahead of the law. The Fourth Amendment was written in a time where information was in tangible form, and the only time it was generally in the hands of third parties, was when it was in the mail. Therefor search of mail in transit was specially protected.
Today, cloud and telecommunication providers serve much the same purpose as the US Postal Service, and are used in similar ways. It is high time that the same protection extended to snail mail be applied to the new high tech communications infrastructures we use today.