Now here’s a really disquieting thought: virtually all new cell phones sold today have some form of passive GPS system (even if the phone itself doesn’t have features that use it). The ostensible purpose is for use in emergencies and 911, but information is information. And the result is that the government, at any time, without your knowledge, and apparently without a court order, can track your location via your phone: put a virtual tail on you.
You’d think that if the government felt it had the right to do this, it would at least inform the public of its new power. But despite ongoing suits by the ACLU and the EFF the government is still mum as to whether it’s done it… even though the documents uncovered so far suggest that they have.
But… I’m honestly not sure how I feel about this.
I do think Americans should have some expectation of privacy in their lives, and by and large, when the government wants to target them for any form of surveillance without their knowledge, a court should be involved.
I also think the legal issues over privacy are deeply muddled. The usual legal language used in this area is a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” But courts rarely mean that literally. There are many cases in which defendants pretty clearly did expect and fully believed that their was conduct was private, which should have made things an open and shut case. But often what courts really mean is “whatever reasonable expectation of privacy one might have if they researched the subject in depth.” On that score, the fact that most people don’t know that the government can use cell phone GPS’s to track them, and many don’t even know that their phones have GPS in the first place, will likely not count as a legitimate defense.
On the other hand, the information in question is collected by a private company, and all cell phone users implicitly agree to it in their service contracts. We might complain that no one really reads those darn things… but whose fault is that?
Once that information is collected, it’s no longer really the property of individual users, and if the cell phone companies want to create a database that keeps tabs on the location of every single one of their users over time… well, then can. And if they choose to hand this information over to the police…
The real problem here is that people are living in a world where technology is quickly changing what’s possible, but with very little re-examination of how that might alter the way we live, and what we demand from service providers and in terms of government legislation. And it’s probably going to take some scandals and crises before anything changes, and we as a society confront these sorts of issues head on.