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GPS Surveillance Creeps into Daily Life

The New Standard | November 15, 2006
Catherine Komp

Public-interest advocates say cell phone surveillance is becoming cheaper and more pervasive, but companies and governments are lagging behind in establishing policies to protect the right to privacy.

For $5.99 per month, you can turn a cell phone into a surveillance device and track when your target leaves home, where he or she travels and at what speed. You can even detect how much battery power is left on the phone. Marketed as "virtual eyes" on your kids or employees, the service also allows you to construct a virtual "fence" so that you can receive electronic alerts if the phone's carrier crosses into forbidden areas.

Provided by the company AccuTracking, this service is just one of dozens integrating the Global Positioning System (GPS) into everyday life. The system uses satellites to determine the locations of GPS-enabled devices.

From brightly colored cell phones and watches designed to help parents shadow the movements of children, to enhanced mapping websites allowing managers to monitor traveling employees through mobile devices, corporations are cashing in on GPS surveillance technology.

But as these increasingly inexpensive products rush onto the market, public-interest groups are raising privacy concerns. Youth-rights' activists, workers' advocates and domestic-violence experts say public dialogue is needed to illuminate the consequences of this $20 billion-per-year industry.

"The problem is people are making these acquisitions of technology without hearing the tradeoff, hearing the downside, hearing the flipside of the discussion," said Lillie Coney, associate director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

EPIC and other groups say surveillance technology is outpacing policies to reign in possible abuses. "It's imperative that there be more rules established for companies that sell these types of devices, the companies that provide the services," Coney said.

From Public Service to Public Surveillance
The Federal Communications Commission requires nearly all cell phones have GPS technology embedded to help emergency responders pinpoint 9-1-1 callers who may not be able to explain their exact location.

But corporations have quickly found profitable uses for GPS. An Internet search for "GPS tracking" reveals dozens of services promising real-time tracking of vehicles, equipment and people.

Nextel and Sprint market a "Mobile Locator," which lists a user's real-time location either by address or via a web-based map. The service also displays "points of interest" –banks, restaurants, and gas stations, for example – positioned around a user's location.

Verizon is hawking a service called "Chaperone," which notifies a customer via text message when a family member enters or leaves geographically defined "child zones."

Toys ‘R' Us has partnered with Wherify Wireless to sell the "Wherifone," described by the company as "destined to be on children's wish lists this year."

In a press statement promoting the device, Wherify promises it will give "on-the-go parents the peace of mind of being able to quickly locate and communicate with their young children, while also controlling who they can call and how much it will cost."

While acknowledging the benefits of such technology in emergency situations, some groups are concerned about the "extreme methods" taken by adults to monitor young people. Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, said that while parents' motivations may be "pure," they are "actually doing more harm than good."

"It affects the trust and relationship between parents and teens," Koroknay-Palicz told The NewStandard. "It sends a very clear message from parents that they don't trust the kids, and they have to monitor them constantly."

Koroknay-Palicz also sees long-term consequences of this monitoring.

"If we raise kids with no expectation of privacy, then they're going to become adults and voters and people of influence in society with no expectation of privacy," he said. "All the expectations of privacy are going to be eroded by the population of adults who grew up with no privacy and don't see the problem with trading away privacy."

Coney of EPIC agreed that parents are buying the "safety and security" sales pitch without evaluating the bigger picture, including who else has access to the tracking data.

"A parent might think this is a means to know where their child is," Coney told TNS, "but it also may be recorded and retained by the person or the entity that provides the service, and they may use it for their own purposes, because there are no laws out there to… prohibit that from happening."

The Boss is Watching
Workers' advocates are also concerned about the increasing use of GPS surveillance in the "mobile" workplaces of truck drivers, couriers and sales people. Previously, tracking technology was fixed in a vehicle or location – places from which employees could leave. But now companies can use GPS-equipped devices to monitor an employee during breaks, lunch hours, and potentially after their work is complete.

Additionally, many of the millions of workers in transportation-related occupations must acquiesce to GPS surveillance in order to keep their jobs.

"GPS has the ability to really give an employer a fully fleshed-out picture of an employee's private life," said Jeremy Gruber, legal director of the Princeton, New Jersey-based National Workrights Institute. "It's perhaps the greatest threat to privacy that we've seen yet by monitoring."

Several privacy experts interviewed by TNS said there are virtually no laws requiring employers to inform workers that they are being tracked by satellite, or to guarantee workers can turn off GPS technology when they leave work.

Legislation introduced in 2000 would have required employers to disclose when they were electronically monitoring workers. But the bills, introduced by Senator Charles Schumer (D–New York) and Representatives Bob Barr (R–Georgia) and Charles Canady (R–Florida), won no additional co-sponsors and died in committee.

Misuses of Technology
Last February, in an article for the UK-based paper The Guardian titled "How I Stalked My Girlfriend," reporter Ben Goldacre described the ease with which he was able to register his partner's cell phone with a surveillance service. Having access to her phone for just a few minutes allowed him to surreptitiously delete the warning message, "For your own safety, make sure that you know who is locating you." He was able to follow her real-time movements on the web for a small fee.

But Goldacre's experiment had already been put to nefarious use by people in the United States. One of the first reported cases of a stalker using GPS occurred in 2000, when Robert Sullivan, who was later convicted of stalking, planted a device in his wife's car in Colorado to follow her movements.

Similar cases have been reported in Arizona, California, Washington and Wisconsin, in which women suddenly noticed their ex-partner or spouse showing up wherever they were – work, the store, or on a date.

Sandy Bromley, program attorney with the Stalking Resource Center at the National Center for Victims of Crime, said GPS is one of the reasons it is becoming more difficult for people to "go underground" and escape their abusers.

Bromley said the Stalking Resource Center recommends that states expand existing stalking statutes to include language that is inclusive of technology to facilitate prosecution of stalking crimes that use electronic surveillance.

Watching the Watchers
Privacy advocates are also concerned about government access to GPS data and whether it is being obtained legally. Groups cite the example earlier this year of the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretaps as good reason to engage in dialogue about the ever-growing "surveillance society."

"We may have the government knowing all the time whether the cell phone in some instances is on or off [and] where [a person] is located at any one time," said Law Professor John Soma, executive director of the University of Denver-based Privacy Foundation. "That is troubling – very troubling."

Warrantless cell-phone tracking by law enforcement has been scrutinized in the courts. A number of judges have denied the federal government's requests to track cell phones without showing probable cause.

The Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act of 1994 forbids telecommunications companies from providing geographical information about their customers to law enforcement without a warrant.

But privacy experts say they have no idea how many judges have erroneously granted the government's requests for warrants. In August 2005, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein in New York issued one of the first public rulings against a government request for a tracking warrant, but said he had previously granted similar applications “without questioning the legal basis for doing so or suggesting that there might be none.”

In closing his ruling, Orenstein wrote, "Wisdom too often never comes, and so one ought not to reject it merely because it comes late."

Lee Tien, a staff attorney with the privacy-rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, notes the “structural problem" of court proceedings that are decided through a closed, “ex-parte” process, in which only the government appears before a judge to make its case without a public interest representative.

"It's a very stealthy situation," Tien told TNS. "Protection of privacy often can be very, very hard because those who are threatening it can operate very, very much in the background, and we don't necessarily have any way of knowing what they're doing. And that not only applies to a stalker or to someone in a company, but also to law enforcement.

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