Cell phone location data: Today the police, tomorrow the world

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Imagine the police know where you are all the time because they can track you by the GPS information from your smartphone. The Washington Post reported that the NSA is tracking 5 billion locations per day, and they can do it whether your cell phone is on or not. Chilling? Sure. But consider the scenario the ACLU has published.

In this somewhat sensationalistic but not entirely unrealistic scenario, The ACLU has a painted a clear picture of how law enforcement armed with location information could learn about your entire life, including where you spend the most time, where you travel and when, and who your known associates are (what we like to call friends). From that data they could begin to make correlations and draw conclusions about your behavior, even in a Minority Report kind of sense, predicting who might be likely to commit a crime such as driving while intoxicated.

The technology is in place, so if the NSA can do it, it stands to reason that just about any law enforcement agency with the budget will soon be able to do it too. Technology is moving so fast, it's difficult for the law and the courts to keep up. In October, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement required a warrant to attach a GPS tracker to a car in order to track a suspect's movements. But who needs tracking devices on cars when you can just tap into the information being broadcast by your smartphone to cell towers without getting permission from a judge?

It's chilling enough on a personal level, but consider how this technology could be used (or abused) in business. We already know that companies like Apple are working with iBeacons and recently purchased Topsy. As CITEworld's Ryan Faas reported this week, "Both have potential to deliver major upgrades to Apple's location-based service, particularly when seen in the context of other recent Apple acquisitions and the expanded role of location services in both iOS 7 and Mavericks," Faas wrote.

If businesses can track our movements as we move through these sensors (iBeacons), they can also assemble a database of our movements. This type of information could very likely be a target of corporate espionage or simple competitive intelligence -- the more you know about your competitor's customers, the more likely you can successfully lure them away. Or, imagine that company who's collected this kind of information faces financial trouble -- do you want to guess how valuable that asset could be?

Or what if this kind of tracking becomes part of the discovery process in a lawsuit? It certainly be used to prove the whereabouts of certain individuals at certain times.

Again, all of this is fairly theoretical right now, but we know the technology is in place to allow sophisticated location tracking today. We also know that over the next five years a network of increasingly sophisticated tracking sensors is going to come in place, and if retailers can track us with them, it won't take long for law enforcement to piggyback on that technology -- just as they use video surveillance in stores today or even Google cookies to track our movements on the internet.

We have to hope that our government will put suitable controls in place to protect individual privacy from this type of surveillance. 

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