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In late July this year, the US Court of Appeals ruled that government tracking of location data is not a violation of privacy. Mobile phone service companies have long tracked user location data. And the NSA has been making deals with these providers for data sharing. This ruling means that mobile phone users will not be able to use the Fourth Amendment to protect their privacy.
Legalities of Location Data
You may think that someone tracking your phone would be a violation of your privacy. But strictly speaking, they are not tracking the phones themselves. What mobile phone companies track is which cellphone towers your phone has been using. This, as the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled, is part of a legitimate company record.
It all started with a controversial 1979 US Supreme Court ruling. The ruling stated that if information is voluntarily shared with companies, this information is no longer protected under the Fourth Amendment. Imagine that you kept a detailed daily log of your whereabouts and posted it on a public website. If someone created a profile of you based on this, you could not blame them for invading your privacy. The court decision basically means the same thing. Your mobile phone location data is based on information that you voluntarily shared. So, in agreeing to the terms of your mobile operator, you have effectively waived your right to privacy.
It comes down to the Supreme Court again on whether or not location data will be covered by Fourth Amendment privacy rights. The ruling on a GPS surveillance case last year determined that the defendant’s privacy rights were violated, but only because a physical device was planted without consent. In the case of mobile phone company records, the surveillance data is already present. No additional device installation is necessary to purposefully conduct the surveillance. Therefore it is difficult to connect the use of this data for surveillance purposes with an invasion of privacy.
There is hope for residents of states that have more specific guidelines for privacy. The New Jersey high court, for example, ruled last month that the use of cell site location data for unwarranted surveillance is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. For states that do not have explicit privacy protections, residents will likely continue to experience location data tracking. These residence will also have to face the related security issues on their own.
It remains to be seen how the courts will rule on location data tracking in general. This will likely also affect ruling on the collection and use of geolocation data and metadata. As we know from the storm surrounding the NSA order for the release of Verizon communications routing information, the collection of metadata has been authorized. The lines between these types of data are gray, and more clarity on the legal use of it for surveillance remains undecided.
Dangers of Sharing Location Data
Since it has been ruled that government tracking of mobile phones is not a violation of the users’ privacy, people need to take steps on their own to secure their location data. This location data collected by companies, and possibly shared with other agencies, can give a pretty accurate picture of your location and movements. People’s movements are mostly a matter of routine, and this makes it easy to build a relatively clear individual profile.
Moreover, this data in the hands of an intelligence agency can be cross-referenced to build a more detailed picture of a user’s activities. Your location data can be used to determine where you sleep and work, and where and with whom you spend time. They can easily figure out what doctors, lawyers, and other professionals you have dealings with. They can even determine what political and religious affiliations you have. They then basically know anything they can put together from where you go, who is there with you, and what is going on there at that time.
Records of your location data can be particularly dangerous for people who often find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many people have found their Internet service cut off just because they happened to visit some sites that were tagged as supporting piracy or other illegal activities. It is assumed that they participate because they are present. Location data can get more people into the same kind of trouble.
The authorization for the collection and use of metadata by the NSA has paved the way for the legal collection of Internet metadata. This precedent in turn has led to the expansion of NSA surveillance options, as we know from their subsequent data sharing deals with large Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook. Because of the gray areas in the legal use of different types of consumer data, users must be extra careful. The debate over the proper use of data and the privacy concerns surrounding them is not likely to be resolved soon. Users meantime should err on the side of caution. VPN services have developed much over the past few years to provide users with better online security solutions.
VPNs are currently the most effective online privacy shields. As they inherently protect all Internet communications, some users have switched from using mobile carriers to taking advantage of VoIP lines and other communications software like Skype. Until the rules are clear on what the government can and can’t do with user location data, this sounds like a very good idea indeed.
Location Data Tracking
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