TAG | location
In two separate cases recently Uber has, or has talked about, abusing its information about their customer’s movements.
First a Buzzed reporter Johana Bhuiyan was told that she was tracked on the way to a meeting by Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber New York.
Next Emil Michael, SVP of business for Uber, talked at a private dinner about the possibility of using the information Uber has about hostile reporters to gather dirt on them. (more…)
A federal appeals court in Atlanta ruled that there is an expectation of privacy in cell tower location information, and therefor it is protected by the Fourth Amendment. This runs counter to other recent rulings that allow access to the information without a warrant under the Stored Communications Act.
The recent ruling relies on precedent from the 2012 Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Jones which stated that a warrant was required to place a tracking device on a suspects car. Phone records provide the same information, just with a different technical means.
This would not apply to intelligence gathering activities, nor would it prevent access to your location information with a warrant. It is a move to recognize that our personal information, about which we have real privacy interests, is increasingly existing in the networks of third parties. Laws that assume anything sensitive would be on paper and stored in your house or on your person are absurdly outdated.
For now this is only a local precedent. The issue will almost certainly end up in the Supreme Court at some point.
The ability to use remotely loaded images in HTML emails for tracking has been known for years, but perhaps not widely known.
The On The Media: TLDR podcast just re-surfaced the issue in the above article, where they talk about a free Gmail plugin called Streak, which provides this capability.
It automatically embeds the hidden images in emails you send, then lets you see when and even where the recipient opens them.
Because they appear to use IP address based locations, you can block the “where” part by using Anonymizer Universal.
You can block this tracking completely by turning off the loading of images in your emails. Of course, if you then choose to load images, know that you are also enabling tracking. If you block image loading you will also find that your email become much less attractive and significantly more difficult to read.
TechCrunch has a nice article on the location tracking of Android based devices.
It is an “opt in” thing, but I suspect that most people are robo-approving all the questions they are asked when they are trying to get their new phones or tablets set up for the first time.
In this case, you may have given Google permission to track and maintain high resolution location information on you. That information is used to discover where you live and work, to improve weather, travel, and traffic information.
If you follow this link, you can see a track of your activities for up to the last 30 days. Really cool in a very frightening way.
ZDNet has published a nice article on 4 key privacy settings under iOS 7 that have defaults you might want to change. Mostly related to location information.
ArsTechnica has a nice article on a recent ruling by the US Fifth Circuit court of appeals.
In this 2-1 decision, the court ruled that cellular location information is not covered by the fourth amendment, and does not require a warrant. The logic behind this ruling is that the information is part of business records created and stored by the mobile phone carriers in the ordinary course of their business.
Therefor, the data actually belongs to the phone company, and not to you. The Stored Communications Act says that law enforcement must get a warrant to obtain the contents of communications (the body of emails or the audio of a phone call) but not for meta-data like sender, recipient, or location.
The court suggests that if the public wants privacy of location information that they should demand (I suppose through market forces) that providers delete or anonymize the location information, and that legislation be enacted to require warrants for access to it. Until then, they say we have no expectation of privacy in that information.
The Fifth Circuit covers Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.
This ruling conflicts with a recent New Jersey Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled that law enforcement does not have that right, which ruling only applies in New Jersey.
Montana has a law requiring a warrant to obtain location information, while in California a similar bill was vetoed.
It seems very likely that one or more of these cases will go to the supreme court.
The ACLU just posted an article about a recent federal magistrate judge’s ruling. It is a somewhat bizarre case.
The DEA had an arrest warrant for a doctor suspected selling prescription pain killer drugs for cash. They then requested a court order to obtain his real time location information from his cell provider.
The judge went along, but then published a 30 page opinion stating that no order or warrant should have been required for the location information because the suspect had no expectation of location privacy. If he wanted privacy, all he had to have done is to turn off his phone (which would have prevented the collection of the information at all, not just established his expectation).
So, if this line of reasoning is picked up and becomes precedent, it is clear than anyone on the run needs to keep their phone off and / or use burner phones paid for with cash.
My concern is that, if there is no expectation of privacy, is there anything preventing government entities from requesting location information on whole populations without any probable cause or court order.
While I think that the use of location information in this case was completely appropriate, I would sleep better if there was the check and balance of the need for a court order before getting it.
This is another situation where technology has run ahead of the law. The Fourth Amendment was written in a time where information was in tangible form, and the only time it was generally in the hands of third parties, was when it was in the mail. Therefor search of mail in transit was specially protected.
Today, cloud and telecommunication providers serve much the same purpose as the US Postal Service, and are used in similar ways. It is high time that the same protection extended to snail mail be applied to the new high tech communications infrastructures we use today.
The House Judiciary Committee is going to be discussing the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. There is a chance that they will strengthen it.
This act was written decades ago, before there were any real cloud solutions. Email was downloaded by your email client, and immediately deleted from the server. They law assumed that any email left on a server more than 180 days had been abandoned, and so no warrant was required for law enforcement to obtain it.
These days, with services like gmail, we tend to keep our email on the servers for years, with no thought that it has been abandoned. Law enforcement is opposing reforms of this law because it would make their work more difficult. Doubtless it would, as does almost any civil liberty.
Earlier this month Zoe Lofgren introduced the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection act, amending ECPA. It would require a warrant to obtain cell phone location information. There is clearly some momentum for reform.
Last week I did an interview on a San Diego news program about issues with many cameras and smart phones in particular embedding very accurate location information in your pictures. If your camera (smart phone or whatever) has GPS, then the EXIF meta data in the picture will contain your location to within about 20 feet. This can be disabled, but is typically on by default.
While this can be useful when you are trying to sort and organize the pictures on your computer, the risk shows up when you start to share the pictures. By combining date and time information in the pictures I can tell if they are recent. If you are on vacation and posting on the road, an attacker can tell that you are away from home and your home probably unguarded. Pictures of your home and family can provide the exact location of your house as well.
The good news is that major sites for sharing pictures like Facebook and Flickr seem to strip out that information from the photos. It is unclear if that is intentional or just a byproduct of how they are processing and displaying the images. In any case, the data is certainly available to the sites themselves.
I strongly encourage everyone to download an EXIF editor to be able to strip this information from pictures before uploading, and to turn off location tracking in their cameras and mobile phone photo applications to prevent the capture of that information in the first place.
The story is about a german politician Malte Spitz who sued to obtain the retained cell tower records for his own phone, then provided them to the newspaper. The newspaper has created a nice map and timeline tool to allow you to play Spitz’s movements over 6 months. The resolution is impressive and should be a real wake up call about the level of detailed information being gathered on us all.
Of course, if the phone company was capturing GPS or WiFi based location information the data would be much more accurate. While GPS would quickly drain the battery, many modern phones have WiFi enabled all the time, so that information would be readily available without any additional impact on the phone’s performance.