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Covering Our Tracks

In our not-so-distant, non-digital past, good guys pursued bad guys with the aid of a faithful hound or trusty local guide. The trail of said bad guys could always be followed from the footprints they left or the vegetation they displaced, subtle impressions in the natural environment that lingered for a short while before they were erased by wind, rain or the occasional foraging coyote.

Nowadays, those of us who never leave home without our mobile or cell phone, leave a potentially more sinister and permanent record of our travels.

James Ball and Craig Timberg recently wrote an article for the Washington Post about the ongoing legal debate in the USA about the use of GPS data in criminal cases (GPS technology finding its way into court). In two unrelated cases, cellphone location data were used to help secure arrests, and the use of that data was sanctioned by the courts. The individuals involved did not have a “…reasonable expectation of privacy” when it came to their cell phone data and it could be collected, without a search warrant. Fearing the potential for abuse as increasingly sophisticated tracking technologies become available, legal challenges to use cell phone location data in this manner were immediately launched. The debate looks set to make it all the way to the Supreme Court.

It’s not just GPS-enabled phones that are involved. Phones without GPS devices, and their owners, can be tracked as they move between signal towers. How many phone users are aware of this and how many know who collects and has access to that information? If we knew more, would we modify our cell phone usage or would we trust the data collectors not to abuse our private location information?

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