Proliferation of tracking technology reaps security benefits, sparks privacy concerns

Government and businesses developing tools to leverage data being collected on people’s movements


Vinton Cerf, the co-inventor of the Internet, recently stated that: “Privacy may be an anomaly.”  He was referring to the situation in small town America decades ago when, even though we thought that our lives were private, neighbors knew what we were doing and the local postmaster was aware of everyone who was sending and receiving mail.  He suggested that the power to maintain privacy in a technology-oriented society will be increasingly difficult to sustain.

In our highly connected world where a vast majority of the population has a smartphone, and perhaps multiple other mobile devices, uses a computer, drives a car or voluntarily reveals the most intimate details of life through one or more social networks, any ability to be completely private about daily activities becomes untenable. 

Virtually every time we connect to the Internet we produce data that are being recorded and tracked.  These data are typically being collected and analyzed by mercantile organizations in order to target advertising to the individual consumer.  The over one million mobile applications being used on smartphones provide a huge source of information about consumer habits and many of these applications have full access to all of the data contained on our phones, including email lists, telephone numbers, messages that we have sent and GPS coordinates that track where we have been over time.

Cellphones themselves are becoming increasingly more capable in their ability to monitor our activities.  The new iPhone 5S uses a new chip called the A7 along with the M7 coprocessor that can constantly and automatically track location using an internal gyroscope, compass and accelerometer, all while using virtually no battery power.  The Apple website states that “M7 knows when you’re walking, running, or even driving.”  Activity details can be collected in the background and stored for extended periods.

Companies like Katana Forensics and Cellebrite can extract information from any smartphone in a matter of minutes and perform a detailed analysis of every aspect of its contents even if the phone has a password or is swipe-enabled protected.  This analysis can quickly discover text messages (including ones that have been deleted), Facebook contacts, websites visited, location pings, emails, photos with geo-location data attached, and Wi-Fi connection history.  These data can all be combined into a time line for a specific date. Analytic solutions developed by both companies are widely used by law enforcement.

Tracking to determine a general physical location is not performed by a single technique.  It consists of a number of different methods that can be merged to determine a precise geographic fix.  One of these is the Global Positioning System (GPS) which consists of orbiting satellites that are detected by a GPS receiver in a cell phone or other mobile device.  In order to work properly the receiver must have a clear line of sight to four or more satellites.  This means that it is best for determining positions outdoors.  With a proper signal, civilian GPS systems can provide a location with an accuracy of about 10 to 20 feet.  The federal government has developed augmentation systems that, combined with GPS, can boost accuracy significantly and permits real-time positioning to within a few centimeters. 

Another modality uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags to determine location.  Some tags are passive, meaning they do not incorporate power sources.  These are relatively low range, on the order of 20 feet, and depend on the tag reader for their energy.  Active tags have batteries to power their circuits (such as the EZ-Pass used to collect tolls) and can broadcast for several hundred feet.  All EZ-Pass transactions are recorded making it relatively simple to obtain a history of where the tag (and presumably the car to which it is attached) has traveled via toll roads over an extended period of time.  If more detailed information is needed there are readily available GPS tracking devices that can be attached to a vehicle to provide real time location information.

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