Your mobile devices know where you are, so do the authorities

Summary:Your smartphone and tablet are tracking your every move, and authorities can get that information without a warrant.

The latest iPhone prototype situation that began with it being left in a bar is food for thought about all of our mobile devices. Analysis of the Apple iPhone happenings has been done and won't be rehashed here, but at the heart of the situation is technology that affects most of us. That prototype was traced to a bar and then to a private home, proving that the device was tracking every move it (and the person carrying it) made. This isn't a special feature of the prototype, it is something that all smartphones and tablets are doing all the time.

Location-based services are a cool use of mobile technology, as they can add benefits to the user not otherwise possible. You see that every time you run a search on your smartphone and have pertinent local information returned. This is possible due to the fact that your mobile device, smartphone or tablet, is tracking your whereabouts all the time.

There are three levels of tracking that take place: devices with GPS can pinpoint your location with great accuracy; cellular-equipped devices can use the carrier's signal towers to locate you with decent accuracy; Wi-Fi devices can use hotspot information to locate you, although you must be actively connected to be located. Any one of these methods are sufficient for those wishing to see where you are, especially without you knowing they are watching.

Government watchdogs have been quietly using this method of surveillance for years, and have been called out by privacy organizations for it. The U. S. Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies have been able to get judges to order carriers to turn over location information about parties of interest, without probable cause of any kind. It is a way to mark a party's every movement without a search warrant.

A recent court ruling may be turning off the easy tap that authorities have come to use for surveillance. Authorities have been able to use this easy access to location information without warrants because courts have previously ruled that agencies do not need to disclose what data is being obtained nor what was done with it. That may stop with this ruling that says authorities must reveal what data was used against those convicted of a crime.

This ruling is the result of the ACLU pushing the courts for clarification of how location data is obtained and used. Catherine Crump, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union who argued the case, sums up the situation:

"I highly doubt that the 90 percent of Americans who carry cell phones thought that when they got cellphone service they were giving up their privacy in their movements."

Cell phones are only one piece of the mobile tracking puzzle, with some laptops and most tablets like the iPad also using location as a feature. Those concerned about the information being tracked can turn off location features in the settings for most phones and tablets. Be aware that carriers still track that information if they are involved, as they are with phones and tablets with 3G/4G service.

Image credit: Flickr user zigazou76

Topics: Mobility, Wi-Fi

About

James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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