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.