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GPS Cell Phones and Your Privacy

written by: •edited by: Heather Marie Kosur•updated: 5/31/2010

GPS cell phones are becoming more and more common, which raises the question: with such powerful positioning technology within them, what does this mean for your privacy as an individual? This article provides an overview.

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    Tracking & Good Intentions

    How did mobile phone companies start out down the path of GPS? The answer is: with all the good intentions imaginable. The US government required accuracy within 100 meters in the FCC's E911 rule—Enhanced 911—so that ambulance services could locate the caller in case of an emergency. This requirement is well-intentioned, for sure, and something that has doubtlessly saved many lives.

    However, it wasn't much of a stretch from this use of GPS to using this positioning information to locate lost persons, who are every bit as much in need, from victims of accident to victims of crime. However, from this stepping stone has arisen numerous privacy concerns.

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    Positioning Apps: All Fun & Games?

    For newer phones, there are numerous apps out there that can upload your position to a number of sources such as a public or locked website: for instance, Google Latitude or Loopt. The idea behind these apps is for a little fun—show your family and friends where you are at any given moment. It's not too different from Twitter or any other application that allows you to keep track of your friends.

    Others find this concept deeply invasive. As of now, this isn't being forced on any particular user, and these apps can be deleted or disabled at any time. The general public doesn't have to be privy to your every move if you don't wish it.

    That is, if you're an adult. Many phone companies offer tracking services for parents to keep tabs on their children. For instance, Verizon's “Chaperone" option can alert parents via text if their children leave a certain area. While few people protest such measures, the fact that this is so easily done and could be used for reasons other than parents keeping an eye on their children.

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    Privacy & The Law

    How much privacy you have regarding your cell phone position varies greatly by your country—and by your court.

    Most countries in Europe have strong constitutional guarantees of “secrecy of correspondence," which explicitly includes telecommunications and your right to keep it completely private. The degree to which your privacy is guaranteed varies by country, but the US, on the other hand, has no explicit legislation regarding privacy of telecommunications, and court rulings do anything but agree. As of now, it's more-or-less okay for the government to use any tracking information for criminal cases. Again, it varies greatly by the court: the rulings have been a mixed bag, and no coherent policy has been created.

    This inconsistency and lack of clarity has resulted in an “anything goes" mentality with law enforcement agencies—anything to take the criminal down, or for that matter, track any civilian with the slightest of blemishes upon their records from attending a protest to knowing a few of the wrong people. How the legalities of this will turn out is anyone's guess.

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    Privacy & Work

    If your employer provided you with any sort of GPS-enabled device, watch out. According to current legislation, employers are allowed to track your whereabouts during work hours. Be mindful of that BlackBerry! Check out this fact sheet for more information on the legalities of employee monitoring.

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    Other Methods of Positioning

    GPS technology isn't the only way that the location of your cell phone can be uncovered. Indeed, your cell phone doesn't even have to have GPS technology in order for it to be tracked.

    The most common example of this is through simple triangulation of your position between different mobile towers by signal strength—the same basic concept as with GPS positioning, just on the ground. A rough approximation can be found just by which single cell tower your phone is relying on.

    Wifi networks are another option for tracking wireless signals, although one that is more difficult for agencies to use to track you because of their lack of organization. For wifi network tracking to work, the cell phone must be on and emitting some sort of roaming signal for the different cell towers to pick up on. Obviously, this is more accurate for urban areas than for rural areas due to the higher density of cell towers, whereas GPS tends to be more accurate in more places.

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    Other Privacy Issues

    There are a lot of privacy issues that are general to all cell phones, not just those that are GPS enabled. Telemarketing, public cell phone number directories, viruses—anything that might allow someone to pull a profit essentially. Be careful!

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    For More Information

    Concerned? Join the club—or rather, the organization. There are numerous groups out there with a huge variety of viewpoints regarding the extent to which cell phone positioning should be kept private, and there's probably one that suits your views. Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the largest of such groups, which also deals with other collisions of human rights and technology. Also check out this page on recent court cases involving cell tracking for more information on privacy and GPS tracking.