Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You — Worry About Your Cellphone

Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You

Ever since the day I first started this site ( back on 2004-03-20 … wow has it been that long?) I have been fielding questions about the legality of GPS tracking.

When I first started the site tis question kind of threw me, because it’s no secret that I am an unabashed GPS tracking enthusiast.  Heck I earned my primary living at it for many years.

Doesn’t The Fourth Amendment Protect You?

But it’s also no secret that the Fourth Amendment (Illegal Search and Seizure) and other privacy related laws have merit and certainly legal status.  So I’ve learned a lot over the past 12+ years of writing and I’m certainly still learning.  Remembering that I am a layman, not a lawyer, and that none of what I write can be taken as legal advice.  But you can start learning here if this is all somewhat new to you.

There Are Many More Ways To Track Than GPS — All “Tracking” Is NOT GPS

Police, private investigators or just plain members of the general public who want to know your whereabouts, and where you have been and when you were there, may track you using various forms of GPS tracking.

Do they have to meet certain legal requirements to do this?  Yes, but depending upon the state where you reside and many other legal “niceties”, meeting the standards of legality my be easier than you think.  Regards of the law, there are always people who might decide not to bother with the law and track you anyway.

If someone places a hidden GPS tracking device on your car, you may not know about it.  This is a problem which I can’t offer any 100% solutions to.

But Maybe “The Device” Is Already There

But they may not need to place a device on your car.  A device may already BE There.  Example, GM (and Honda’s) OnStar.  Ford and other manufacturers have similar products.  Did you buy one with your last new car?  It pays to read the fine print.

If you bought a used car, there’s also an excellent chance your car has a dealer-installed tracking system, especially if you bought through a “buy here, pay here” dealer.  Could this be legal?  Maybe yes, maybe no, again. what does your sales and financing contract say?

But Maybe “The Device” Is Already On Your Person

But even more pervasive than any of these common methods is your cell phone.  Most modern cell phones, both IOS (Apple) and Android (most other brands) send out your GPS location to our service provider.  Any law enforcement agency can obtain this data with a simple letter request or at most a subpoena from a court.

In most jurisdictions the standards for a location tracking data request are much less restrictive than say the criteria for a voice “phone tap”.

A non-law enforcement agency or a private person “snooper” may be able to gain access to the information by various illegal, but often easily done “hacks”.

What You Can Do About GPS Cell Phone Tracking Privacy

  • Well first of all, don’t carry a cell phone.  Later on in this article you’ll see why this is good advice, GPS or no GPS.
  • If you do decide carrying a cell phone is worth the risk, then think about one which does not have built in GPS capability.
  • Or you can often disable or lock out the GPS feature in your existing phone.

But alas for your privacy, nothing except the law will stop cell phone’s most pervasive privacy weakness.

Locking or blocking the GPS features of your phone still leaves you highly vulnerable.

Cell Site Location Information (CLSI)

Your cell phone, even the oldest and most basic non-GPS type phones operate in a very defined manner, anywhere, world-wide.

If the cell phone is powered on, it continually searches, silently and automatically, for a signal from the closest cell phone tower or “cell site”.

When it detects a signal, it transmits, also silently and automatically, it’s built-in, unchangeable “protocol” (which means a set of standard procedures ever cell phone and cell phone carrier adheres to, world-wide).

Among other data, your phone _ALWAYS_ sends its IMSI (the International Mobile Subscriber Identity number that identifies a particular subscriber’s SIM card).

So any time your phone is turned on, a cell phone tower and the cell phone carrier that hosts that tower knows your approximate location.  If you are traveling, the phone will continually update with different towers along the way, and thus anyone with access to the carrier’s records will have a rough map of your travel, in what we call “near real time”.

Absolutely no GPS needed.

But There’s More Than CLSI to Worry About

In order to get emergency responders to the location of an emergency situation called in to 911, the FCC requires ALL US cell phone carriers to

Phase II E911 rules require wireless service providers to provide more precise location information; specifically, the latitude and longitude of the caller. This information must be accurate to within 50 to 300 meters depending upon the type of location technology used. “

This means, again, all phones.  How do the carriers know the latitude and longitude of a cell phone without GPS?  They use a technique call multilateration, often called triangulation.  This technique involves various cell phone towers “pinging” your phone (not detectable by you, the user) and then by simple measurements of signal strength and your direction from multiple towers, simple (for a computer) trigonometry the carrier can determine your location within 50 meters (~165 feet).

What can you do to prevent this happening?  Frankly, not a damn thing if your phone is turned on.

Again, absolutely no GPS s required.

Two Other Important Location Privacy Issues

Have you ever heard of a “Tower Dump“?

Basically this mean police or other agencies with at least putative law enforcement status request a report commonly called a “Tower Dump” from all carriers with cell phone towers in range of a specific area at a specific time … typically an hour or two.

This “Dump” report give the requestor a list of all cell phone in range of a specific tower.  Let’s say you go to a rock concert and a crime occurs.

Presto.  If the police have no other means of finding leads to specific suspects, just by going to the event you just made yourself a potential suspect.  Just sitting at their desktop computers the police now have a list of people to begin further invading the privacy of, with virtually no “probably cause”.  Just by carrying a cell phone you have put yourself at a crime scene.  Scary?

Again, absolutely no GPS tracking involved here.

Last But Not Least (for today, anyway).

Stingray (and now a whole army of similar devices know by different trade names).  These are suitcase-size 9or even smaller) “black boxes”, once super secretly built for the NSA and other “black” government agencies which act as a phony cell tower.

They mimic a real tower, your phone innocently connects and presto, who you call, when you call them, what you say or text is instantly available to the Stingray operator.

Not only are these devices routinely used in surveillance vans, it’s highly likely the NSA, FBI (and perhaps other government agencies) have a small fleet of aircraft readily available for dispatch anywhere to orbit over an area of interest while perhaps hearing everything from everyone.

It’s also quite apparent that these aircraft are airborne and listening for something and someone almost every day.  An informative and chilling article (with detailed maps) here: America is being watched from above. Government surveillance planes routinely circle over most major cities — but usually take the weekends off.

Help Is On The Horizon

So after nearly two thousand words of doom and gloom, is there any help for the average cell phone user who doesn’t like to be tracked at will?

Well yes, at least a move in the right direction for privacy, I hope.

Supreme Court Review Fourth Amendment: Warrantless Cell-site Data Collection Unconstitutional

Monday, October 31, 2016 :: Staff infoZine
Cell phone location data, which can provide an incredibly detailed picture of people’s private lives, implicates our Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches, requiring police to obtain a warrant to gain access, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) told the Supreme Court.
Weighing in on separate cases where two courts have applied 1970s-era law to digital communications in the information age, EFF urged the nation’s highest court to step in and establish that Americans have the right to expect location data generated from their cell phones is private and protected by the Constitution against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Cell phones constantly connect to cell towers and antennas—which number in the hundreds of thousands—that handle traffic from an estimated 378 million U.S. cell phone accounts. The data generated about these connections, known as cell-site location information (CSLI), create a highly detailed picture of people’s private lives. We carry our cell phones when we leave our homes each day, when we walk into a therapist or lawyer’s office, visit a gun shop, attend a political meeting or sleep at a friend’s. Location information about these private activities is tracked and stored, for years, by cell service providers.

Don't Worry About GPS Tracking YouDefendants in U.S. v. Carpenter and U.S. v. Graham were convicted after police obtained, without warrants, hundreds of days of location data produced by their phones to connect them to crimes. The defendants maintained that the use of CSLI violated their Fourth Amendment rights. But the appeals courts in both cases followed Smith v. Maryland, a Supreme Court decision from 1979, when many Americans used rotary-dial land-line phones. In Smith, the Court said that people who voluntarily give certain information to third-parties—such as banks or the phone company—have no expectation of privacy in this information, and thus the government does not need a warrant to access it.

“Cell phone users don’t voluntarily provide location data to their providers—it happens automatically without their control and is generated whether or not the phone is being used,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch. “Other federal courts and judges in several states have recognized that the so-called ‘third party doctrine’ doesn’t apply to CSLI. It’s time for the Supreme Court to consider whether a decision it made before the existence of commercial cell phones, which are now ubiquitous and reveal our every move, can still be used to override Fourth Amendment protections.”

In 2014, the high court recognized in a unanimous ruling that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires police to obtain a warrant before accessing data on an arrestee’s device. And in a landmark 2012 decision, the court held that GPS tracking is a search under the Fourth Amendment. Yet police are obtaining extensive historic cell-site information without warrants.

“CLSI can give law enforcement far more information about a person’s movement than GPS tracking—cell phones go everywhere their owners go,” said EFF Staff Attorney Andrew Crocker. “If GPS tracking implicates Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights, prolonged cell-site data collection—which provides sensitive details about where we went, who we met with, and what we did—should also be protected against warrantless searches. We’re asking the court to grant review of these important cases and address the Fourth Amendment privacy implications of CSLI.”

EFF filed identical petitions in U.S. v. Carpenter and U.S. v. Graham.

Bottom Line?

If you carry a cell phone, Don’t Worry About GPS Tracking You.