Federal law enforcement attempts to use cell phones as tracking devices were rebuked twice this month by lower court judges, who say the government cannot get real time tracking information on citizens without showing probable cause.
Entries Tagged "tracking"
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Boston Globe editorial on RFID and privacy:
It’s one of the cutest of those cute IBM Corp. TV commercials, the ones that feature the ever-present help desk. This time, the desk appears smack in the middle of a highway, blocking the path of a big rig.
”Why are you blocking the road?” the driver asks. ”Because you’re going the wrong way,” replies the cheerful Help Desk lady. ”Your cargo told me so.” It seems the cartons inside the truck contained IBM technology that alerted the company when the driver made a wrong turn.
It’s clever, all right — and creepy. Because the technology needn’t be applied only to cases of beer. The trackers could be attached to every can of beer in the case, and allow marketers to track the boozing habits of the purchasers. Or if the cargo is clothing, those little trackers could have been stitched inside every last sweater. Then some high-tech busybody could keep those wearing them under surveillance.
If this sounds paranoid, take it up with IBM. The company filed a patent application in 2001 which contemplates using this wireless snooping technology to track people as they roam through ”shopping malls, airports, train stations, bus stations, elevators, trains, airplanes, rest rooms, sports arenas, libraries, theaters, museums, etc.” An IBM spokeswoman insisted the company isn’t really prepared to go this far. Patent applications are routinely written to include every possible use of a technology, even some the company doesn’t intend to pursue. Still, it’s clear somebody at IBM has a pretty creepy imagination.
There’s a Slashdot thread on the topic.
The Boston Transportation Department, among other duties, hands out parking tickets. If a car has too many unpaid parking tickets, the BTD will lock a
The white SUV in this photo is owned by the Boston Transportation Department. Its job is to locate cars that need to be booted. The two video cameras on top of the vehicle are hooked up to a laptop computer running license plate scanning software. The vehicle drives around the city scanning plates and comparing them with the database of unpaid parking tickets. When a match is found, the BTD officers jump out and boot the offending car. You can sort of see the boot on the front right wheel of the car behind the SUV in the photo.
This is the kind of thing I call “wholesale surveillance,” and I’ve written about license plate scanners in that regard last year.
Technology is fundamentally changing the nature of surveillance. Years ago, surveillance meant trench-coated detectives following people down streets. It was laborious and expensive, and was only used when there was reasonable suspicion of a crime. Modern surveillance is the policeman with a license-plate scanner, or even a remote license-plate scanner mounted on a traffic light and a policeman sitting at a computer in the station. It’s the same, but it’s completely different. It’s wholesale surveillance.
And it disrupts the balance between the powers of the police and the rights of the people.
Like the license-plate scanners, the electronic footprints we leave everywhere can be automatically correlated with databases. The data can be stored forever, allowing police to conduct surveillance backwards in time.
The effects of wholesale surveillance on privacy and civil liberties is profound; but unfortunately, the debate often gets mischaracterized as a question about how much privacy we need to give up in order to be secure. This is wrong. It’s obvious that we are all safer when the police can use all techniques at their disposal. What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don’t place an unreasonable burden on the innocent.
Throughout our nation’s history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of police and the civil rights of the people. The license plate itself is such a balance. Imagine the debate from the early 1900s: The police proposed affixing a plaque to every car with the car owner’s name, so they could better track cars used in crimes. Civil libertarians objected because that would reduce the privacy of every car owner. So a compromise was reached: a random string of letter and numbers that the police could use to determine the car owner. By deliberately designing a more cumbersome system, the needs of law enforcement and the public’s right to privacy were balanced.
The search warrant process, as prescribed in the Fourth Amendment, is another balancing method. So is the minimization requirement for telephone eavesdropping: the police must stop listening to a phone line if the suspect under investigation is not talking.
For license-plate scanners, one obvious protection is to require the police to erase data collected on innocent car owners immediately, and not save it. The police have no legitimate need to collect data on everyone’s driving habits. Another is to allow car owners access to the information about them used in these automated searches, and to allow them to challenge inaccuracies.
The Boston Globe has written about this program.
Richard M. Smith, who took this photo, made a public request to the BTD last summer for the database of scanned license plate numbers that is being collected by this vehicle. The BTD told him at the time that the database is not a public record, because the database is owned by AutoVu, the Canadian company that makes the license plate scanner software used in the vehicle. This software is being “loaned” to the City of Boston as part of a “beta” test program.
Anyone doubt that AutoVu is going to sell this data to a company like ChoicePoint?
RFID car keys (subscription required) are becoming more popular. Since these devices broadcast a unique serial number, it’s only a matter of time before a significant percentage of the population can be tracked with them.
Lexus has made what it calls the “SmartAccess” keyless-entry system standard on its new IS sedans, designed to compete with German cars like the BMW 3 series or the Audi A4, as well as rivals such as the Infiniti G35 or the U.S.-made Cadillac CTS. BMW offers what it calls “keyless go” as an option on the new 3 series, and on its higher-priced 5, 6 and 7 series sedans.
Volkswagen AG’s Audi brand offers keyless-start systems on its A6 and A8 sedans, but not yet on U.S.-bound A4s. Cadillac’s new STS sedan, big brother to the CTS, also offers a pushbutton start.
Starter buttons have a racy flair — European sports cars and race cars used them in the past. The proliferation of starter buttons in luxury sedans has its roots in theft protection. An increasing number of cars now come with theft-deterrent systems that rely on a chip in the key fob that broadcasts a code to a receiver in the car. If the codes don’t match, the car won’t start.
Cryptography can be used to make these devices anonymous, but there’s no business reason for automobile manufacturers to field such a system. Once again, the economic barriers to security are far greater than the technical ones.
It captures criminals:
Today, even murderers carry cell phones.
They may have left no witnesses, fingerprints or DNA. But if a murderer makes calls on a cell phone around the time of the crime (and they often do), they leave behind a trail of records that show not only who they called and at what time, but where they were when the call was made.
The cell phone records, which document what tower a caller was nearest when he dialed, can put a suspect at the scene of the crime with as much accuracy as an eyewitness. In urban areas crowded with cell towers, the records can pinpoint someone’s location within a few blocks.
Should a suspect tell detectives he was in another part of town the night of the murder, records from cell phone towers can smash his alibi, giving detectives leverage in an interview.
I am fine with the police using this tool, as long as the warrant process is there to ensure that they don’t abuse the tool.
Salon has an interesting article about parents turning to technology to monitor their children, instead of to other people in their community.
“What is happening is that parents now assume the worst possible outcome, rather than seeing other adults as their allies,” says Frank Furedi, a professor of sociology at England’s University of Kent and the author of “Paranoid Parenting.” “You never hear stories about asking neighbors to care for kids or coming together as community. Instead we become insular, privatized communities, and look for
technological solutions to what are really social problems.” Indeed, while our parents’ generation was taught to “honor thy neighbor,” the mantra for today’s kids is “stranger danger,” and the message is clear — expect the worst of anyone unfamiliar — anywhere, and at any time.
This is security based on fear, not reason. And I think people who act this way make their families less safe.
EDITED TO ADD: Here’s a link to the book Paranoid Parenting.
Your cell phone company knows where you are all the time. (Well, it knows where your phone is whenever it’s on.) Turns out there’s a lot of information to be mined in that data.
Eagle’s Realty Mining project logged 350,000 hours of data over nine months about the location, proximity, activity and communication of volunteers, and was quickly able to guess whether two people were friends or just co-workers….
He and his team were able to create detailed views of life at the Media Lab, by observing how late people stayed at the lab, when they called one another and how much sleep students got.
Given enough data, Eagle’s algorithms were able to predict what people — especially professors and Media Lab employees — would do next and be right up to 85 percent of the time.
This is worrisome from a number of angles: government surveillance, corporate surveillance for marketing purposes, criminal surveillance. I am not mollified by this comment:
People should not be too concerned about the data trails left by their phone, according to Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
“The location data and billing records is protected by statute, and carriers are under a duty of confidentiality to protect it,” Hoofnagle said.
We’re building an infrastructure of surveillance as a side effect of the convenience of carrying our cell phones everywhere.
Universal automobile surveillance comes to the United Arab Emirates:
IBM will begin installing a “Smart Box” system in vehicles in the United Arab Emirates next year, potentially generating millions in traffic fines for the Gulf state. The UAE signed a $125 million contract with IBM today to provide the high-tech traffic monitoring and speed-enforcing system in which a GPS-enabled “Smart Box” would be installed in cars to provide a voice warning if the driver exceeds the local speed limit for wherever he may be driving. If the voice warning is ignored, the system would use a GSM/GPRS link to beam the car’s speed, identity and location to the police so that a ticket could be issued. The system would also track and monitor any other driving violations, including “reckless behavior.”
Sidebar photo of Bruce Schneier by Joe MacInnis.