Since 2001, cell phone carriers have been making it easier to track your cell phone, whether your phone uses GPS or not. Part of the reason is the FCC regulation that make it possible for 911 emergency services to locate emergency calls. However, police also use this information in non-emergency situations to identify where people have been and where they are in real time. When it comes to cell phone tracking, consumer benefits, as well as personal and public safety, intersect with privacy issues and the ability of criminals to use this information to endanger people and property.
How Tracking Works
GPS, which is a standard feature in most smartphones, uses multiple GPS satellites to precisely locate your position, usually within a few feet and in just a few seconds. However, cell phone carriers don't need GPS to locate your phone. Using triangulation, they can accurately calculate the position of any cell phone by measuring its distance from three separate cellular towers. This is done automatically when your cell phone is turned on, as towers constantly ping a phone to provide service.
Benefits of Tracking
The benefits of tracking cell phone locations for crime victims and police are reported widely in the news. In November 2012, for example, police used a man's cell phone to determine he had stolen a truck containing President Obama's podium and teleprompter. The movement of his phone matched the movement of the truck during the time of the heist. Police are able to use a cell phone's location to determine where assistance is needed in a 911 call and they use cell phones to locate missing people who are unable to call for help themselves. A much more common but less dramatic benefit is that with a GPS app on a smartphone, lost drivers don't need to ask passers-by for directions.
In many states, police do not require a search warrant to access your phone's location records. Some departments use their own equipment, while others obtain location information from the cell phone carriers. Carriers charge fees to police for live feeds of data as well as the location history of phones, which they generally store for up to two years. The American Civil Liberties Union has argued that since police require a warrant to place a GPS tracker on a vehicle, warrantless tracking of cell phones violates Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure.
Cell phone carriers sometimes make location services available to consumers, like offering the ability to track family members online, which can pose a security concern if the wrong person is able to tap into such a service. Such a case was reported in 2010 by the Wall Street Journal when a woman fled an abusive husband. He used this tracking service to hunt her down. It has been argued that the same technology police use to bypass carriers to track phones could be acquired by criminals to track your whereabouts.
If you allow your smartphone to tag your location in pictures and social media posts, you may inadvertently be providing more information to the world than you realize. For example, posting on Twitter or Facebook while on vacation can tell people where you are and how far away you are from an empty house. Even a photo posted on the Internet that was taken by a smartphone can reveal your location and make it possible for people to know exactly where you are by looking at the metatags attached to the image. To stay safe, you can disable geotagging options on most media profiles.
- PCMAG: How Police Track Your Phone
- Fox2Now: Feds Track Cell Phone To Find President Obama’s Teleprompter
- ACLU: Cell Phone Location Tracking Public Records Request
- CNET News: Federal Court OKs Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking By Police
- Wall Street Journal: Stalkers Exploit Cellphone GPS
- USA Today: Web Photos Reveal Your Location
- CNET News: Cell Phone Tracking Raises Privacy Issues
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