How far does privacy extend in the age of GPS tracking?

Today the New York Times highlights an interesting, and increasingly ripe legal issue currently working its way through the federal courts: privacy, and how far its extends, in the age of GPS tracking.

The story begins with a real-life example in which local law enforcement attached a GPS tracker to a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant. The legal question before the court: Does this action violate the 4th amendment, resulting in an illegal search under the Constitution. (The GPS tracker allowed police to know the whereabouts of the suspect 24 hours a day without his knowledge.)

My interest in this subject is admittedly less dramatic and more prosaic than, say, trying to hide from the authorities. It rises out of a vague notion of self-preservation. But it’s no less important for millions of Americans who now walk around with GPS trackers. Of course I’m talking about smartphones.

As I write this, my Droid Incredible sits a few feet away on my desk. Like many smartphones, it came with a GPS function already loaded onto the platform, a hugely convenient app that I utilize when I use Google Maps, Google Earth and FourSquare. I can hide my location when I want, meaning my FourSquare friends can see where I am when I want them to.

Beyond what happens if law enforcement decides to track my goings and comings using my phone, does the GPS function send out data on my location the entire time the phone is on and does Google, or a third-party vendor, collect that information, which then can be handed over to authorities requesting it?

Potentially more troubling, what happens to that information if it is collected but never requested by authorities? Where does it go? Who or what has access to it? What are the safeguards protecting my information?

Admittedly I am not a tech wizard and my concerns could be allayed by someone more knowledgeable in how GPS works if it turns out that my scenario doesn’t reflect the current state of affairs or capabilities.

But until then the issue remains out there for millions of Americans who own smartphones, which are basically small GPS trackers.

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2 Responses to “How far does privacy extend in the age of GPS tracking?”

  1. John West Says:

    Personally, I find google latitude’s “location history” a useful tool to track my own comings & goings more or less constantly, while allowing a small handful of friends to do the same. I can turn it off if & when I want or need to, and am able to delete sections if I so choose (though at this point, I’ve never felt the need). Using it has helped me find my mislaid phone more than once, and it gives me considerable peace of mind to know that if I ever should for some reason go missing, at least my phone’s last known location would be readily available to that small group of persons to whom I entrust that particular information. This, I believe, might in time get it into the proper authorities’ hands, if need be. Being tracked by law enforcement is among the least of my concerns, although (of course) i’d personally much prefer it to be done with my prior knowledge & consent, if ever such a thing were to occur. But that’s just me, of course, being me. ;^) ;^) Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, as always. Be well, John West.

  2. Hi John. Thanks for the comment.
    I’m genuinely in awe of the technology on these smartphones and all they can do. Like you, I use apps that use GPS (Latitude, FourSquare, Google Earth). Frankly I love them. But the NYT story, combined with recent conversations with friends, has started me down this path of wondering what other uses there are for GPS. That doesn’t mean I won’t use my Droid Incredible any less, just that I’m aware of other potential uses.
    Hope you’re doing well.

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