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Geolocation Tracking: Your Cell Phone Footprint is Bigger Than You Think

  • AuthorTerri Williams
  • Published Monday, July 8th, 2013
  • Comments0

Recent revelations by Edward Snowden have turned an international spotlight on the U.S. government’s cell phone surveillance capabilities. However, this issue was gaining steam long before the 29-year-old IT contractor’s allegations of overstepped boundaries. Ethical questions regarding cell phone surveillance by the government, marketers, and even other mobile phone owners — especially geographic location tracking — have been hotly debated for several years.

In August 2012, PBS NewsHour reported that New York Times technology reporter David Pogue lost his iPhone and solicited help from his 1.4 million Twitter followers to find it. Using “Find My iPhone,” a geolocation app, Pogue discovered the phone was in the backyard of a house in Seat Pleasant, Maryland.

He shared this information with his Twitter base, and he and his followers posted maps and photos of the home. A policeman — who was a follower of Pogue’s — went to the suspected location and found the phone in the backyard. The home’s owner was implicated in the phone’s theft, but Pogue did not press charges.

Pogue says turning on the Find My iPhone app is optional, and it also requires a password, so no one else can turn the service on. When PBS asked about invading the homeowner’s privacy, Pogue replied, “I’m not so worried about his privacy. He stole the phone.” True enough, the phone was found in the thief’s backyard. But suppose the thief would have disposed of it in a neighbor’s trashcan. Was Pogue acting irresponsibly to have launched such an invasive campaign without knowing for sure that he was targeting the right person?

Also in August 2012, an article in Forbes magazine detailed the controversial work of Mirco Musolesi, a researcher at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. Musolesi has devised an algorithm that uses GPS data, telephone numbers, text information and prior calling history to predict an individual’s future movement. In other words, by studying a person’s mobility patterns, Musolesi can accurately predict future GPS coordinates. In this way, Musolesi thinks he can help identify where criminal activity will occur. And he wants to work with law enforcement agencies in the U.K. to test his theory, using anonymous data from suspects on bail who have been electronically tagged.

However, this plan also involves monitoring the cell phone activities of the subjects’ unsuspecting friends as well. Although potential criminals can disable their phone’s tracking capabilities, Musolesi says this will not hinder his algorithm from tracking them since cell tower information can also be used. “If you have a very fine-grain network, you can identify the street and block and house,” he tells Forbes.

While an algorithm may accurately predict future locations, trying to predict the location of future criminal activity is another matter entirely. According to Evgeny Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion,” predictive policing may result in an increase in racial profiling, a decrease in the need to prove probable cause and an increase in dependence on statistics over other ways of conducting police work. The algorithm also raises privacy issues regarding suspects and their friends.

While Musolesi’s algorithm is designed to prevent criminal activity, some geolocation tracking efforts have been accused of possibly nurturing criminals. In March 2012, the “Girls Around Me” app debuted and quickly earned the nickname, “The Stalker App.” The Foursquare web service awarded virtual prizes to people who used their smartphone’s GPS location software to “check in” at various establishments. This information was fed to the Girls Around Me app, and when men clicked on the app’s icon, they were supplied with a map detailing the location of females who were in very close proximity.

For each female, the app also included a photo, name, address, age and martial status. After John Brownlee, Deputy Director of the Cult of Mac website, published a story warning consumers about the app, it was pulled from the iOS app store.  But Brownlee warns the app may not be dead. In an interview with Cult of Mac, Brownlee states that the app’s developer denied it was a stalking app, but rather a tool to help men “avoid ugly women.”

However, Brownlee walked readers through the app to demonstrate how much personal information was revealed. If a user clicked on a girl’s photo, the app loaded her full-screen Facebook profile picture, and also listed her last location and the approximate time she was there. According to Brownlee, “Zoe’s Facebook profile also reveals that she is 24 years old, went to Stoneham High School, attended Bunker Hill Community College, likes to travel, her favorite book is “Gone With The Wind,” her favorite musician is Tori Ames and she’s a liberal.”

Her birthday and the names of her family members are also displayed. From looking at her pictures, Brownlee can deduce that she’s a partier who likes to take photos with a variety of different guys, her favorite drink is a frosty margarita, sometimes she drinks until she gets drunk, and she recently went to Rome.

Armed with this information, Brownlee says any guy could walk up to “Zoe,” ask if she remembers him from Stoneham High School, inquire about her brother Mike, offer to buy her frosty margarita and then talk about what a great time he had in Rome last summer. Brownlee concludes by saying that if somehow the routine doesn’t work with Zoe, the app offers the same type of information for several other girls at his current location.

On one hand, Girls Around Me is merely taking public information and merging it together — which isn’t a crime. However, are the subjects aware that their public information is being used in such a way? Granted, they have the responsibility to control their privacy settings on Facebook and other social media sites. But is Girls Around Me exploiting them by neatly compiling all of their personal data and placing it in the hands of people who may not have the best intentions?

Of course, no article with the keywords, “tracking,” “people,” and “data,” would be complete without a blurb about retailers and advertisers. And in November 2011, New York Senator Charles Schumer issued a press release warning consumers that JC Penney and Home Depot were considering using technology to automatically track the location of shoppers through their cell phones. The “FootPath technology,” developed by British company Path Intelligence, uses antennas set up throughout the store to monitor signals from personal cell phones. Retailers in Europe and Australia already use FootPath technology, but after Schumer’s press release gained considerable media attention, the U.S. retailers decided against implementing the plan.

An outraged Schumer says, “A shopper’s personal cell phone should not be used … as a tracking device by retailers who are seeking to determine holiday shopping patterns.” Schumer warns that if the tracking system and phone company were hacked, the consumers’ personal information could be compromised.

Cell phone tracking has also been hotly debated in court cases. As recently as May 2013, NBC News reported that U.S. Magistrate Gary Brown wrote an opinion defending the government’s use of geolocation trackers — even without a warrant — to find suspects. Brown’s 30-page opinion involves the case of a New York doctor who illegally distributed oxycodone and could not be found when an arrest warrant was issued for him. DEA agents requested a search warrant for the doctor and Brown felt there was probable cause to use the suspect’s cell phone GPS to locate and apprehend him. The doctor’s cell phone location led to his arrest, and in response to critics who questioned whether this constituted an invasion of privacy, Brown wrote that, with or without a warrant, “Cell phone users who fail to turn off their cell phones do not exhibit an expectation of privacy and such expectation would not be reasonable in any event.”

However, using cell phone locations without a warrant to find and/or apprehend criminals is an ethical issue, according to Amie Stepanovich, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center Domestic Surveillance Project in an interview with NBC News. “It’s not practical or reasonable to require individuals to turn off their cell phone to prevent law enforcement from accessing a stream of location data,” Stepanovich, says.

In each of these instances — with the exception of the lost mobile phone — users are being tracked without their knowledge or consent. This, in itself, is an ethical issue and, even in those instances where a “greater good” is being served (such as the apprehension of a criminal), do the means justify the end? The Constitution guarantees due process, legal representation and attorney-client privileges, but are the Fourth Amendment rights of suspects violated through cell phone tracking?

While many people may consider geolocation tracking to be harmless, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia provides a cautionary statement regarding its effects:

“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Terri Williams is a business, ethics, and communications writer.  She creates content for several clients, including Yahoo, USA Today, The Houston Chronicle, and The San Francisco Chronicle. Williams has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Contact her at

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