Mobile Phone Geo-Tracking Means You Can Run, but You Can't Hide

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2011-04-25

Mobile Phone Geo-Tracking Means You Can Run, but You Can't Hide

The latest revelation about Apple's apparent practice of recording your iPhone's location periodically and then sending the information to the Apple mother ship has a lot of people disturbed.  

For some reason, nobody seems as disturbed that Google is doing the same thing with its Android phones, perhaps because most people knew that Google was already doing some kind of location tracking when it drove around taking pictures and collecting WiFi information.  

Apple apparently collects the information and saves it in a file, which is then stored on your computer when you sync your iPhone or iPad. Android devices do something similar, although it's not clear that they store anything on your computer. These locations and their respective time stamps are sent to Apple and Google, respectively. It's not clear what either company does with this information. 

It does not appear that Research In Motion collects such information on its BlackBerry devices, but that might only mean that no one seems to have found that they do. I don't know that anyone knows for sure what Microsoft or Nokia might do with location information if they collect it, or whether anyone cares. 

But even if Apple and Google only use this information in some sort of aggregated reporting, which won't present a privacy issue, it's clear that others are using it. There are already rumors, for example, that in Michigan the police routinely download this location information even during traffic stops. Michigan State Police recently denied that they routinely download mobile phone location data. 

On the other hand, federal immigration officials and the Transportation Security Administration have acknowledged that they have the right to download information on devices, including phones, and that they have done so. A number of companies are making products to allow such location retrieval easily, and they're selling it to law-enforcement agencies. This means that such retrieval is certainly taking place outside of Michigan. 

Because of this, privacy advocates are upset, and they should be. This kind of tracking of one's movements in the absence of some kind of court order seems to be a violation of privacy rights. Unfortunately, it's not forbidden by law, so until it is, you may not be able to do much about it. 

Worse, it's not clear that it matters. If someone wants to know where you are, and you have a cell phone, they can find you with varying degrees of accuracy, depending on your carrier and whether you have a GPS unit installed in your device. In other words, the government can find you, just like you see them do in those endless cop shows. 

What's worse is that other people can find you as well. One colleague who counsels women in abusive relationships reports that those abusers can locate their victims even when they've taken refuge in a shelter or a safe house. I don't have any specific cases to point to, but it does bring up some horrific images. 

We're All Losing Privacy, Freedom by Default


So the problem isn't Apple and Google so much as it is the generally public nature of your location. While using the Apple and Google position-reporting capability may make it a little easier, it clearly doesn't keep someone from tracking you. Unfortunately, that genie appears to be already out of the bottle, short of turning your phone off all of the time, there's not much you can do to keep your location private, at least not easily, and frequently not in a way that's generally available to average consumers. 

On the other hand, at least average consumers are probably aware that they can be tracked with their phones now that all of this information has been made public. Of course, anyone who has watched a cop show in the last five years or so probably already knew this, but the current fuss about Apple doing it shows just how easy it can be. The fuss also draws awareness that this tracking is being done in a very casual way.  

But does that mean you should be able to do something about it? It would seem only reasonable that these companies at least have your permission before they collect information from your phone or tablet. And perhaps they do. Hardly anyone reads those agreements that accompany your phone, its software and mobile carrier contract. Deep down inside those documents you agree to have information collected by the company that is selling you the device or their service. I don't think that anyone realized that it would be location information, and it certainly wasn't made clear in all of those agreements you had to accept to use your phone's software. 

But you may have already agreed to it, and whether you did or not, it may not matter. It's already very easy to track whomever you want as long as they have a phone and it's turned on. If you're worried, you may be able to disable the GPS, but you can still be located by the WiFi signals and the cell towers near you. Your other choice is to turn the device off, or even better, pull the battery-at least in devices where you can do so. 

And while you're at it, don't buy into the argument that you don't have anything to worry about if you've done nothing wrong. You have your loss of freedom to worry about at the very least. In addition, you could have to worry about warrantless police searches and being the subject of investigation just because you happened to be somewhere that someone else didn't think you should be. And that's a big worry.


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