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Cops' Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Now Better Than GPS 147

Posted by Soulskill
from the knows-if-you've-been-bad-or-good dept.
Sparrowvsrevolution writes "On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing to discuss a proposed bill to limit location tracking of electronic devices without a warrant — what it's calling the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act, or the GPS Act. Ahead of that hearing, University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze submitted written testimony (PDF) telling Congress that phone carriers, as well as the law enforcement agencies with which they share data, can now use phones' proximity to cell towers and other sources of cellular data to track their location as precisely or even more precisely than they can with global positioning satellites. Thanks to the growing density of cell towers and the proliferation of devices like picocells and femtocells that transmit cell signals indoors, even GPS-less phones can be tracked with a high degree of precision and can offer data that GPS can't, like the location of someone inside a building or what floor they're on. With the GPS Act, Congress is considering expanding the ban on warrantless tracking of cars with GPS devices that the Supreme Court decided on in January. Blaze's testimony suggests they need to include non-GPS tracking of cell phones in that ban, a measure law enforcement agencies are strongly resisting."
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Cops' Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Now Better Than GPS

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  • by uniquename72 (1169497) on Friday May 18, 2012 @01:47PM (#40043443)
    ...You can't have both.
    • by mblase (200735)

      ...You can't have both.

      In other shocking revelations, squares are not round.

    • Sure you can. Just not of the same data points.

    • by hendridm (302246)

      ...You can't have both.

      But who here WANTS surveillance? :P

    • by EdIII (1114411) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:47PM (#40044405)

      With respect, bullshit

      What you meant was, "Privacy or Mass Surveillance.... You can't have both".

      Privacy in the long run will always benefit the People more than governments use of mass surveillance to allegedly provide the People with more security. The common mistake is treating the government like a regular person and evaluating their possession of information as having the same possible consequences which completely ignores the massive differences in power between both actors.

      Simple surveillance, under Due Process, is not affected by creating laws to protect Privacy, or laws that ban the use of mass surveillance on people.

      Law enforcement and governments will always have enough resources and technology to intercept communications and watch a single person. It is the traditional stake out, using listening devices, gathering information the old fashioned way, etc. They might not be able to do this to millions of people at one time, but that is the point. It is dangerous to allow them to do that.

      Convince me that more than 10% of the population is currently engaged in conspiracies to commit heinous and violent acts against other citizens (forget that bullshit about the War on Drugs) and it *might* be a point for discussion.

      The greatest danger we face is the government . That's not paranoia either, but simple observation of the facts and history.

      • Sorry, I accidentally made reference to TFS, forgetting that many on /. lack the skill to READ before commenting. I'll clarify for the shortbus crowd:

        The name of the Act is Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act. It does nothing to protect privacy.

        Your illogical, meandering rant aside, as long as you are under surveillance, you're are not experiencing privacy. The act of surveillance necessitates the removal of privacy.

        Hopefully that's less confusing.

        The greatest danger we face is the government

        Thanks for your agreement.

        • by EdIII (1114411)

          Sorry, I accidentally made reference to TFS, forgetting that many on /. lack the skill to READ before commenting. I'll clarify for the shortbus crowd:

          The name of the Act is Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act. It does nothing to protect privacy.

          It seems you are riding the shortbus. All you did was parrot two words in the summary and say that only one can exist at one time, which is untrue. Aside from your baseless and unwarranted character attacks....

          Your illogical, meandering rant aside, as long as you are under surveillance, you're are not experiencing privacy. The act of surveillance necessitates the removal of privacy.

          No. My rant is quite logical and far from random or aimless, which is implied by meandering. Your disregard for the context of TFS (which I did read) is misleading. It most certainly is talking about privacy of citizens as a whole and surveillance as it relates to single individuals.

          You do a disse

    • by BeanThere (28381)

      You mean there are no ways to at least try find middle grounds in particular situations? Gee.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    From now on, I'll only make calls from stolen cell phones. Way to go gov!

  • by dryriver (1010635) on Friday May 18, 2012 @01:51PM (#40043495)
    We, the consumers, pay good money for the hardware in a smartphone, including the GPS geolocation capabilities. Then some government goons come along and say "Ha ha! We'll track your location using the GPS electronics in your phone!" ------- Same with Facebook. We, the users, make Facebook a great, big site with our data and our invested time. Then the government goons come along and say "Ha Ha! We'll find out everything we want about you by poaching your Facebook data!" ------ This particular decade has very much started on the wrong foot, with regards to personal privacy and somesuch. -------- How much worse can this all get? Will we be required by law to give up ALL PRIVATE DATA because the government likes to have it? -------- These laws and personal data tracking policies are just wrong.... wrong, wrong, wrong....
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by cpu6502 (1960974)

      If you're not a criminal, or an "unwanted race" under some future tyranny state, what does it matter that the government tracks your phone? Besides you can disappear quite easily by just pulling the battery.

      The facebook issue is more seriously, but when you publish things publicly, whether it's the new facebook or the old newspaper, the government can and will collect that data. Solution: Keep quiet.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by ifwm (687373)

        If you're not a criminal

        Is there any phrase more overused and insulting, when brought up in a discussion about rights? Maybe "think of the children"?

      • by Anonymous Coward

        This just the same old line, "If you are not guilty, then you have nothing to hide."

      • If you're not a criminal, or an "unwanted race" under some future tyranny state, what does it matter that the government tracks your phone?

        That's rather shortsighted. Simply because you aren't oppressed right now doesn't mean you won't be later on. Better to stop such Orwellian policies before you need them removed than after...not to mention the ethics of allowing others to be oppressed and not giving a rip because it isn't you.

        And let's face it, "criminal" is a term that is defined by the government. I'm sure everyone here on /. has seen stories where "${Ridiculous_Action} is illegal in the state of..." For example

    • by icebike (68054) * on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:02PM (#40043643)

      Well instead of bitching here on Slashdot, try writing (pen and paper, not email) your representative in congress and insisting they pass the Geolocational Privacy and Surveillance Act, with no watered down provisions.

      Is it really so hard to get a warrant? If you can't convince a judge, why should a email to your cell provider suffice?

    • by oGMo (379)

      Same with Facebook. We, the users, make Facebook a great, big site with our data and our invested time. Then the government goons come along and say "Ha Ha! We'll find out everything we want about you by poaching your Facebook data!"

      Do you seriously think facebook stuck around because of your work and not because corporations already did the same thing and paid facebook to keep the servers on? Or do you just think that (nearly unrestricted) corporate privacy invasion is less bad than government privacy in

    • by ducomputergeek (595742) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:11PM (#40043817)

      There is no privacy. That's the price of modern convenience. Some of us warned folks 10+ years ago this day was coming. Most largely ignored it because of "Ooh, shiny" or "convenience".

      Genie's out of the bottle. Good luck getting it back in.

      • by geekoid (135745)

        eww. wow, you must be some kind of super genius, having 'warned' us of the no existent ant problem.

        Twit.

        Nice out of context quote, btw.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      If Fred and Bob meet at a restaurant, who "owns" the factoid that "Fred and Bob ate at X restaurant at Y time". That data has monetizable value, but who has the rights to sell it? Does Fred? Does Bob? Do they both have joint and several rights? Does the restaurant get to sell it?

      The same goes with Facebook. What you post on the site is no longer exclusively "your private data". Any middle-schooler can (or should) realize that Facebook makes money by selling that data, and that you should expect them t

    • by spire3661 (1038968) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:17PM (#40043889) Journal
      I hate to point this out, but WE are the government. I really despise people who talk about government like its this disconnected entity. We THE PEOPLE, make up the government, it is your FELLOW MAN who seeks to enslave you, not some faceless 'government'.
      • We The People Have not made up this country since FDR.

        I don't know what Fellow Man your talking about...but they sure aint my fellows.

        If they are so much your fellow man, go run for president and fix things.....Good luck with that.

      • by dkleinsc (563838) on Friday May 18, 2012 @03:11PM (#40044769) Homepage

        Riddle me this then: How is it that restrictions on fine print of financial agreements between lenders and average borrowers, which garner the support of 90% of Americans in polls, aren't actually in place? How is it that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opposed by roughly 65% of Americans for years, are still going on? How is it that even though people across the political spectrum from Tea Partiers to Occupiers are demanding that big banks be investigated for what appears to be fraud fraud worth trillions of dollars, no such investigation is taking place?

        I can guess at who's demands the government is actually satisfying, but it's definitely not the general public's.

        • by Antimatter3009 (886953) on Friday May 18, 2012 @04:43PM (#40045853)
          Because we aren't a direct democracy. Majority opinion doesn't always become law, and it definitely doesn't happen immediately. That's by design. But it still lies with the people to select the government. If our government representatives aren't doing what we want, then we have the power to select new representatives. If they're not doing what we want but we're re-electing them anyway, then that's our fault. No amount of money and corporate friends can buy a place in Congress. Instead, all that cash buys votes, but it's our fault for putting our votes up for sale.

          A beauracracy the size of the US government will always have corruption in it, but it still always comes back to us when we don't remove those responsible.
      • I want to come live in your world.
      • by thegarbz (1787294)

        The government IS a disconnected entity of sociopaths. We the people have a small amount of leverage to decide which of the two biggest douchbags in the country we hate the least, and then provide all power to them. Sure people say just vote for someone else, and in many parliaments they have in recent years.

        As a result now countries like the UK and Australia have to battle with a hung parliament, a major party making back room deals with batshit crazy independents and the greens in order to get enough numb

    • by sl4shd0rk (755837)

      How much worse can this all get?

      Much, much worse. [imdb.com] Of course, it's very simple to put and end to. Just stop patronizing the worst offenders... but nobody wants to do that.

    • Its funny how some people don't mind if a big corporation like Google tracks you, or even sells your information (maybe like Facebook) but, if the GOVERNMENT does it, then its time to cry foul.
      • by ZeroSumHappiness (1710320) on Friday May 18, 2012 @04:58PM (#40046035)

        I can stop using Facebook or Google without uprooting my life. I can't stop using the United States of America without uprooting my life.

        I choose what I give over to Facebook or Google. The government is choosing what it takes from me.

        Facebook and Google are only beholden to me insomuch as I fund their operations. The government is beholden to me by the mere fact that I am a citizen and they should be implementing things for my best interest.

        Facebook and Google are interested in connecting someone with a product with someone who could make use of that product. The government is interested in many things including harassing people that don't agree with it.

        If Facebook or Google wrongs me I can sue them in open court and, if the wrong is great enough, I can have others join my suit. The government can, without input, shut down my suit before anyone sees it through a variety of means.

        Anyone else want to add a few more distinctions?

        • by rtaylor (70602)

          I choose what I give over to Facebook or Google.

          A large chunk of the information Facebook and Google know about you was collected from people other than you.

          You can choose what you give Facebook/Google, but you cannot choose or limit what knowledge they have about you.

  • What I want is to have the same rules for everyone, with the exception that the police can get a court order for special actions (searches, tracking, wiretapping, etc.). If it's legal for a private person to secretly track someone, then the police don't need a warrant. If it's not, then the police can't do it either unless they get a warrant. Any exceptions should be explicitly created by law, such as access to DMV records and criminal databases.

    If we had such a simple and straight-forward interpretation

  • by emptybody (12341) on Friday May 18, 2012 @01:56PM (#40043565) Homepage Journal

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    Every time we pass a new law we water down the constitution.
    "papers" - is not strictly paper. it is where their data is stored.
    "effects" - whatever they have
    "houses" - where they store themselves and their stuff.
    "persons" - they themselves

    what more is needed?

    • A carve-out for law enforcement.

    • Tell that to the "strict constructionists", it's gonna be hilarious. They are about as funny as biblical literalists.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        WHat the fuck are you on about? "strict constructionists" would interpret the 4th as meaning, STRICTLY "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.". The carve outs and related stupidity is a result of the "living documen
      • by Bigby (659157)

        A strict Constitutionalist does not interpret the literal meaning in the sentences. (S)He tries to interpret the spirit of the sentences at the time they were written. Otherwise, they would think that people have the right to bear arms...as in the mammal's arms.

      • by Shompol (1690084)
        It is very sad that your are comparing fundamental laws of a country to a fairy tale story written 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, this is exactly how our state and police treat it: "leave the laws to "constitution literalists" to study, we can do whatever the fuck we want".
    • by icebike (68054) *

      Except that surveillance, simply having an approximate idea where you are, is not now, and never was a search. Just like having a detective follow you around is not a search.

      The fundamental problem here is that the drafters of the Constitution did not foresee technology that allowed a government to invade your privacy from a distance, and it never occurred to them that invasion of privacy itself was a problem. Therefore there is no constitutional right to privacy. A huge oversight based on the era in wh

      • Incorrect (Score:3, Informative)

        by ifwm (687373)
        "Except that surveillance, simply having an approximate idea where you are, is not now, and never was a search." Incorrect, if you read the decision on GPS, the problem was not with knowing where people were, either very specifically, or generally, but with the amount of time that knowledge was available. The previous decision makes it quite clear that even a general knowledge, over anything other than an incidental period of time, is a violation.
        • Re:Incorrect (Score:4, Insightful)

          by amRadioHed (463061) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:59PM (#40044571)

          Some of the justices in the GPS case mostly objected to the fact that a physical device was attached to the suspects vehicle. If the tracking was entirely unintrusive as with tracking a cell phone it may have had a different outcome.

          • I'd suggest you read the decision. There were comments by some of the judges objecting to the narrowness of the decision. I think if it were cell phone tracking there is a decent chance they would have found that unacceptable too.

      • Arguably, if it's ex post facto it's not surveillance, it's searching data that I collected (or someone collected ostensibly on my behalf) which should require a warrant. And and I'd be willing to bet that if the founding fathers could have predicted our nation becoming a panopticon where every man, woman and child is being surveilled (by your definition) every minute of every day, I would be willing to bet my hypothetical time machine that they would have included wording against it.

      • by dkleinsc (563838)

        Therefore there is no constitutional right to privacy.

        Many Supreme Court justices and rulings would disagree with you on that point. Here's a fairly well-sourced discussion on the right of privacy [umkc.edu].

        • by icebike (68054) *

          Therefore there is no constitutional right to privacy.

          Many Supreme Court justices and rulings would disagree with you on that point. Here's a fairly well-sourced discussion on the right of privacy [umkc.edu].

          Which begins with EXACTLY what I said above: The U. S. Constitution contains no express right to privacy.
          It then goes on to list the depressingly small instances where specific privacy rights are protected.
          Be careful what you cite.

          Wikipedia says this [wikipedia.org]:

          Concerning privacy laws of the United States, privacy is not guaranteed per se by the Constitution of the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States has found that other guarantees have "penumbras" that implicitly grant a right to privacy against government intrusion, for example in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). In the United States, the right of freedom of speech granted in the First Amendment has limited the effects of lawsuits for breach of privacy. Privacy is regulated in the U.S. by the Privacy Act of 1974, and various state laws. Certain privacy rights have been established in the United States via legislation such as the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act (GLB), and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

    • by FreshlyShornBalls (849004) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:14PM (#40043859)
      Please upvote the parent here. This is EXACTLY the problem. We all know better. We know the Constitution should be protecting us and these laws are subservient to the Bill of Rights. Yet every time we allow these laws--pro or con--to be enacted, we collectively, as a Nation, say, "The Constitution is irrelevant." Of course, the more we say it, the more the police, legislators and judges believe it and act accordingly.
    • by jgtg32a (1173373)
      I'll play

      What's being searched? My understanding is they aren't accessing your phone and making it tell them where it is, the police are just homing in on a signal that your phone is emitting.

      Seems to me the best why to deal with this is to just add more to privacy laws, just like other PII, a person's location is protected information.
  • by BitterOak (537666) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:01PM (#40043627)
    Unlike GPS devices covertly installed on your vehicle by police, cell phones are in the user's control. You don't have to leave it turned on all the time. In particular, if you are doing something private, like visiting your mistress, you can simply turn the phone off before driving to her apartment. And if you're afraid the phone will still leak location information while in standby or power-off mode, you can simply remove the battery.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:05PM (#40043683)

      There is an APP for th.... oh wait. You can't simply remove the battery on the iPhones. Droid users must be cheating on their wives! /not posting this from my company phone...

      • by BitterOak (537666)

        There is an APP for th.... oh wait. You can't simply remove the battery on the iPhones.

        Sounds like a damn good reason not to buy an iPhone then.

    • by dietdew7 (1171613) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:10PM (#40043797)
      I don't think I should have to disable my phone to prevent the authorities from high jacking it. After all I paid for the phone and I'm a citizen not a subject. If they can convince a judge they can get a warrant, otherwise hands off.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        After all I paid for the phone and I'm a citizen not a subject. If they can convince a judge they can get a warrant, otherwise hands off.

        How quaintly puritan an attitude you posses, good sir. I shall apprise good president Thomas Jefferson of your enlightened opinion.

        Good morrow to you!

        News bulletin: The US became a Police State a long, long time ago. Only a fool or an insane person would believe otherwise.

        Still, TERRISTS!!

      • by BitterOak (537666)

        I don't think I should have to disable my phone to prevent the authorities from high jacking it. After all I paid for the phone and I'm a citizen not a subject. If they can convince a judge they can get a warrant, otherwise hands off.

        The advantage to taking out the battery, especially when doing something private, is it protects you even when the police DO have a warrant!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Unlike GPS devices covertly installed on your vehicle by police, cell phones are in the user's control. You don't have to leave it turned on all the time. In particular, if you are doing something private, like visiting your mistress, you can simply turn the phone off before driving to her apartment. And if you're afraid the phone will still leak location information while in standby or power-off mode, you can simply remove the battery.

      Well by your line of reasoning, automobile users are still in control because they could just not drive their car. You don't have to be in the car all the time. In particular, if you are doing something private, like visiting your mistress, you can simply ride the bus to her apartment. And if you're afraid the car will still leak location information while in your driveway, you can simply remove the battery...err, wait.

    • It's already non-trivial to remove the battery from an iPhone and I can pretty easily imagine a regulation that required phone manufacturers to mount the battery in such a way that removal would require destruction of the phone. That way, They'll spin it, if someone steals your phone, the provider/law enforcement will be able to track it. It will be done for only benevolent reasons. Like all these civil liberty eroding laws are. Sorry, citizen protection laws, I get so confused in my old age.
    • by Fri13 (963421)

      There are known cases where officials or inteligence services has tapped to cell phones what have been just turn off by button. That is one reason why in Russia in high level meetings you don't just turn phone off, but you need to remove the battery and leave them to another room.

      If I remember correctly, there were even slashdot story about it few years ago.

      • Not just in Russia. There's plenty of places in the US where phones stored outside of an area are required to have their batteries pulled too.

        A cell with a battery installed can still be used to track and eavesdrop, regardless of it's perceived power state.

    • Unlike surveillance cameras covertly installed into your television, pen and paper and in the user's control. You don't have to write on the paper all the time. In particular, if you are doing something private, like writing down your own thoughts, you can simply walk to the corner of the room in the blind spot of the surveilance camera. And if you're afraid the camera will still see you, you can simply not write on the piece of paper at all.
  • wrongly formulated (Score:5, Insightful)

    by kipsate (314423) on Friday May 18, 2012 @02:08PM (#40043749)
    This seems obvious to me, but bills like this should be formulated in terms of what they actually do, regardless of the technology used.

    In this case, the bill should simply state that a warrant is required when someones location is actively monitored within a certain precision for a certain time period.

    Same with laws around cookies, which is a topic among lawmakers in some countries. Instead targeting cookies, these laws should address the fact that a user is uniquely identified across sessions and/or websites. Cookies are just one way to achieve this, but there are others which do not even require cookies, such IP number in combination with all sorts of data such as browser agent, os, screen resolution etc. etc. that makes any user pretty much unique even without cookies.
    • Yes. If they just follow one simple rule, all these special laws are completely unnecessary. If the police or govt want to track you, search your property, see your activity from phone, bank, credit card, etc. transactions, they need to get a warrant. Following someone doesn't require a warrant if they're following your movement in public access spaces.

      Here's the simple rule:
      If the info isn't available to the public and isn't info you explicitly gave to the government, then a warrant should be required. No

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Wait wait wait, you're trying to tell me that the congress is actually planning to pass a law that doesn't fly in the face of the constitution and actually reinforces the 4th amendment?

    My calendar says 5/18 not 4/1...

  • One solution to being illegally tracked like this is to remove the battery if you are wanting to remain private.

    • Sticking the phone in an RF shielded bag will also work, however it might be a little harder on battery life.

      The problem with these solutions is they defeat the purpose of carrying a phone.

    • And if you get an important phone call while your phone is off... I'm sorry, you shouldn't be doing something you want to remain private at the same time your loved ones might get into a car accident.

  • > University of Pennsylvania computer science professor Matt Blaze...

    "Awww, come on, ma! Couldn't you have named me 'Max Blaze'? Then I could have been a secret agent. Now I have to be a university professor >:-( "

  • When E911 was mandated and everyone had to be able to provide the position of a phone calling 911 to the emergency services, the original solution was that every phone was going to have to have a GPS in it. A lot of them do (and did) have a GPS chip, even ones that don't let you get access to the positioning information. But many providers didn't want to pay for that chip until the user was really going to be doing something with it that they would somehow get paid for so they went another way: with Differential Time Of Arrival, or DTOA. GPS frequently doesn't work when you are in a building but DTOA doesn't care about a few walls as long as it has signal because they don't slow the signal down much compared to the time it spends passing through air.

    The nifty thing about DTOA from a technological standpoint is that cell sites tend to have sectored antennas, so you only need two of them to triangulate a target, and even one site is going to significantly restrict your search area, to a relatively small arc.

With all the fancy scientists in the world, why can't they just once build a nuclear balm?

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