GPS-enabled cell phones can be a powerful tool, for you, for the law—and for anyone else with a little technical know-how. Ethics violations with GPS are numerous and the laws indistinct. Here's an overview of some of the problems.
Tracking & Positioning
The most common type of ethics violation that is specific to GPS-enabled cell phones is with the GPS technology within—technology that enables the positioning of your cell phone with extreme accuracy wherever it happens to be in the world. This can lead to some pretty deeply disturbing potential violations of ethics by many parties, from the government to random strangers to even your employer. Check some examples out below.
Part of the reason why there are so many ethics violations because of GPS is that there is no formal constitutional protection for any type of telecommunications within the United States. Worse, even the courts have made no coherent decisions on how much privacy a consumer should expect for either their cell phone communications or its location; the rulings varying from the owner expecting no privacy whatsoever to requiring a full criminal search warrant to peer into any kind of cell phone information. What will emerge out of this mess of court rulings is anyone's guess, but, for now, the gray area surrounding telecommunications privacy has led to a plethora of actions that smell like ethical violations to many.
Things are a little less indistinct once you get abroad. In most European countries, for instance, there is explicit privacy of telecommunications provided in their constitutions, which does a lot to discourage any possible ethical violation.
FBI & Roving Bugs
The FBI is notorious for its questionable investigative techniques, and GPS-enabled cell phones are no exception. One of the most recent known uses that the FBI has had for GPS cell phones is creating a “roving bug," that is, a locating device that also has the microphone remotely activated, all without the consent of the owner. This is a powerful tool to take down crime, for sure, but many of its known targets have been of only the barest suspicion.
This has been approved of by top judges in the US Justice Department, although another judge has ruled that this requires a warrant and probable cause. However, the FBI appears to have made no plans to stop this program as of the writing of this article.
Political Activists & Pedophiles
Taking it a step further, what about tracking your local concerned citizen who is a bit vocal about the issues they care about, attending protests and the like? The FBI has been known to use GPS-enabled cell phones to track political activists even if they're peaceful and nonviolent. While the government hardly has the best track record regarding even mild dissidents, this has led to a considerable amount of alarm amongst human right organizations including, ironically enough, the very people the FBI are tracking.
There are all sorts of shades of gray involved with who's to be tracked and who's to be left alone. Pedophiles who committed their crimes decades ago are often tracked, just as other criminals who really may have moved on with their lives.
While it certainly can be argued that such tracking of individuals may result in a few captured criminals here and there, many also wonder whether this is worth the loss of human liberties. It's a question that's up for debate.
Employers & Ethics
Many employers are handing out GPS-enabled cell phones to their employees, which poses another potential ethics violations. Currently, it is legal for employees to use GPS technology to track employees during work hours. Check to see what your employer's policy on cell phone tracking is. Check out this website for more information on employer monitoring and your rights as an employee.
Stalking, another extreme example, can be taken to a whole new level with this sort of technology. Hacking a GPS-enabled cell phone to show someone's position at all times means that stalkers can stalk their victims from the safety of their own home without physically revealing themselves until they feel the need to—which may be too late for the victim if the stalker is violently inclined. Tracking someone's every move behind closed doors is a frightening possibility.
There are a plethora of applications and downloads available for cell phones, some of which may contain viruses including ones that may track your position. While there haven't been any known largescale viruses to have done this quite yet, the threat is there and quite frightening. Your location known at any time to some malignant third party is not a pleasant thought. The best defense against this is to be careful of what you download onto your phone.
Other Methods of Tracking
Probably the most common method of mobile tracking is via triangulation of signal strength for different nearby signal towers, analogous to how proper GPS works. Otherwise, a rough approximation may be found just by what signal tower you happen to be using when your phone sends out a roaming signal. Wifi networks can also be used, but this is more difficult as there is no real coherent organization to them for any third party to utilize for tracking purposes.
But, what breaches of privacy are ethical, then, if any? Take a look back in history, back to the original use of cell phone positioning: emergency services. If ambulances could know exactly where you were dialing 911 from, then they could get the proper aid to you that much faster. Doubtless, this has saved many lives: it's hard to find much wrong with this sort of use of GPS technology.
Protecting Your Privacy
If you have a GPS-enabled phone, check to see if you can disable the function except when desired. That's really your first and only line of defense against such breaches, although it is by no means a guarantee. Skilled hackers can remotely access your phone and activate pretty much any feature they please. Not to scare anyone.
Still worried about your privacy? There are a number of organizations out there attempting to fight for the right to privacy in the digital age. The largest of these groups is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. If you'd like to keep track of court cases and other happenings to do with cell phones and positioning, you can follow the EFF Cell Tracking webpage or subscribe to their feed.