NSA Wrongly Says Warrantless Mobile-Phone Location Tracking Is Legal

National Security Agency snoops are harvesting as many as 5 billion records daily to track mobile phones as they ping nearby cell towers across the globe.

That alarming scoop by The Washington Post via documents provided by NSA leaker Edward Snowden included wishful thinking from an unnamed government “intelligence lawyer” interviewed in the story. This official, according to the Post, said that the data “are not covered by the Fourth Amendment,” meaning a probable-cause warrant isn’t required to get it.

In reality, however, the case law on cell-site locational tracking — while generally favorable to the government — is far from clear, with federal courts and appellate courts offering mixed rulings on whether warrants are needed.

And it’s a big deal. As of last year, there were 326.4 million wireless subscriber accounts, exceeding the U.S. population, responsible for 2.3 trillion annual minutes of calls, according to the Wireless Association.

All the while, warrantless cell-phone location tracking has become a de facto method to snoop on criminals in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision that probable-cause warrants from judges are generally needed to affix covert GPS devices to vehicles.

Yet the mobile-phone location data issue has never been squarely addressed by the Supreme Court, and the dispute isn’t likely to be heard by the justices any time soon. All of which means that the legality of the latest crime- or terror-fighting method of choice is equally up in the air.

The high court in June rejected an appeal (.pdf) from a drug courier sentenced to 20 years after being nabbed with 1,100 pounds of marijuana in a motor home camper the authorities tracked via his mobile phone pinging cell towers for three days from Arizona to a Texas truck stop.

In that case, and without comment, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. The appeals court ruled that probable-cause warrants were not necessary to obtain cell-site data.

The appeals court had distinguished the case from the GPS decision decided by the Supreme Court two years ago. The high court had ruled that the physical act of installing a GPS device on a target’s vehicle amounted to a search, which usually necessitates a probable-cause warrant under the Fourth Amendment.

“Here, the monitoring of the location of the contraband-carrying vehicle as it crossed the country is no more of a comprehensively invasive search than if instead the car was identified in Arizona and then tracked visually and the search handed off from one local authority to another as the vehicles progressed. That the officers were able to use less expensive and more efficient means to track the vehicles is only to their credit,” the three-judge appellate panel of the 6th Circuit ruled 2-1.

According to the Post, “the NSA pulls in location data around the world from 10 major ‘sigads,’ or signals intelligence activity designators. A sigad known as STORMBREW, for example, relies on two unnamed corporate partners described only as ARTIFICE and WOLFPOINT. According to an NSA site inventory, the companies administer the NSA’s ‘physical systems,’ or interception equipment, and ‘NSA asks nicely for tasking/updates.’”

Regarding whether that’s legal, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — in July sided with the government in a case involving three lower court rulings concerning unidentified suspects. A lower court said “compelled warrantless disclosure of cell site data violates the Fourth Amendment.”

The government argued that a mobile-phone company may disclose historical cell-site records created and kept by the company in its ordinary course of business, where such an order is based on a showing of “specific and articulable facts” that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation. A court warrant, on the other hand, requires the higher probable-cause standard under the Fourth Amendment. The appeals court agreed. (.pdf)

The government’s argument is based on a 1979 Supreme Court ruling upholding a Maryland purse snatcher’s conviction. The conviction and 10-year term came after the cops compelled the phone company to make a record of the numbers dialed by defendant Michael Lee Smith. A warrant, the high court reasoned, was not required because people do not have a reasonable expectation that the records they maintain with businesses would be kept private.

That same case has provided the legal justification for the NSA’s massive phone-metadata snooping program.

Still, another appellate court to have ruled on the issue was the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court said in 2010 that the lower courts have the option to demand a warrant for cell-site data. The court covers Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennet of Maryland last year cited the purse-snatching decision when declining to suppress evidence that Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan were allegedly involved in a string of Baltimore City fast-food restaurant robberies. They were arrested in connection to one robbery, and a 7-month historical look of their phone records placed them on the scene when other restaurants were robbed, the authorities said.

Bennet ruled:

For the following reasons, this Court concludes that the Defendants in this case do not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in the historical cell site location records (.pdf) acquired by the government. These records, created by cellular providers in the ordinary course of business, indicate the cellular towers to which a cellular phone connects, and by extension the approximate location of the cellular phone. While the implications of law enforcement’s use of this historical cell site location data raise the specter of prolonged and constant government surveillance, Congress in enacting the Stored Communications Act, has chosen to require only ‘specific and articulable facts’ in support of a government application for such records.

That decision is on appeal with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Oral arguments are slated for next month.

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Alderman Suggests Requiring GPS Devices On All Guns

A South Side alderman is asking for City Council hearings on an unorthodox gun control measure that would allow for GPS tracking of firearms.

WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports Ald. Willie Cochran (20th), a former police officer, has suggested that global positioning system chips be embedded in new guns, and retrofitted on existing firearms, so they could be located if they go missing.

“Just like if your car gets stolen, OnStar can tell you where your car is. If your gun gets stolen, and you report it, we should be able to find that gun,” he said.

Cochran has introduced a resolution asking the Committee on Public Safety to hold hearings to receive testimony on the matter. A Massachusetts state senator from Boston has been pushing a similar measure in that state.

Cochran acknowledged it might be expensive to install GPS chips on current and future firearms, but not as expensive as the cost of gun violence to society.

“Let’s measure what it costs in hospital costs, lost wages, deaths,” he said.

As for the privacy of gun owners who could be tracked with the GPS chips in their guns, Cochran said, “safety is … a much more important issue than is privacy.”

“It is extremely important that we look past this privacy issue, at this point, and understand how important it is for us to address the issue of safety,” he added.

The mayor wasn’t commenting on Cochran’s proposal.

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Tech This Out: GPS Tracking Devices

I think having a child get lost or kidnapped would be any parent’s worst nightmare.

The closest thing I have to a child is my dog and I know if she went missing I wouldn’t be able to function.

Now that the holiday season is upon us, it’s likely you’ll be out in crowded malls, busy public places, airports or doing holiday activities.

It’s easy for kids to slip away in a toy store or get separated in a big crowd.

It’s also possible that you could lose your luggage on a trip or get your purse stolen while out shopping.

I thought this might be a good time to review some personal GPS device trackers.

The idea came up during Halloween because of trick-or-treating but I’ve decided that when it comes to things that are most precious to you, keeping those things safe is important any time of year.

I’ve tested two small devices that you can use for your child, your pet, your car, your purse, your luggage, elderly people, anything you want to keep track of.

The two devices are are about the size of your keys, fun size candy bar, or a stick of gum.

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Cell Phone Surveillance: Tracking Your Every Move

Cell phones long ago ceased to be a luxury and became something we can’t leave home without. But even when your device is idle or turned off, it’s sending information about your location to a cell phone tower every seven seconds. One thing most of us don’t consider is access to that information isn’t limited to your cell phone carrier.

“Police and the government can use that ping to track your whereabouts. There is no expectation of privacy in carrying that cell phone,” said Savannah attorney Bates Lovett of Hunter Maclean. Lovett said carriers can give out this information without your knowledge or permission, and in some cases without a court order.

“They can pull your text messages. They can pull your search history. Those are the types of data and information that they’re being able to pull off now that they don’t always need a warrant for,” said Lovett.

Cell phone companies are now answering more demands for your data than ever before. Nine U.S. carriers responded to questions from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D – Massachusetts) earlier this year. According to Markey, the group reported receiving more than 1.3 million requests for information from law enforcement in 2011.

There is no denying that cell phone data is useful and often essential for investigators working to solve crimes. Privacy advocates question whether law enforcement is being allowed too much leeway with what should be protected information.

“They’re going after one person but get information on anyone who was around a cell phone tower at a certain time. Even though they’re investigating one person, they have information on hundreds or thousands of people,” said Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Experts say the problem is the law hasn’t kept up with technology.

“That’s certainly an issue that legislatures are taking into consideration now is what level of requirement must the government go through to get that type of information,” said Lovett.

A bill called the GPS Act that would require warrants for the data has stalled in the U.S. Senate. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said he believes it is time for Congress to act.

“There should be a very high firewall in terms of personal information and what can be done with that information, who gathers that information, who sells, who buys that information,” Kingston told News 3.

Until regulations are in place, remember that what you do with your cell phone is more public than you think.

“Your expectation of privacy and what you and I would think of as private is just not the same thing as what the government thinks of as privacy,” cautioned Lovett.

Many of the cell phone carriers that responded to Markey’s inquiry said they don’t keep track of the law enforcement requests they reject, so the number of requests for data is actually more than estimated.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that some cell phone carriers have manuals for police that explain what data the companies store, how investigators can obtain the data, and how much it would cost.

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INFIDELITY: How to confirm if your partner is cheating – Private Investigators vs Modern Technology

You’ve seen all of the signs, and now you’re looking for confirmation. When you’ve reached this point, to obtain the peace of mind you require you’re left with the decision as to whether you’ll engage the use of a professional service or alternatively invest in some modern day technology. To help you in your decision process, we’ve outlined the most common resources available to you – and the legalities you will face should you choose it.

Private Investigators:

“Honeytrap” investigators: For those who have been cheated on before or have concerns their partner may stray, they may turn to the services of these types of investigators. Better known as a ‘honeytrap’, these types of investigators will start a conversation with your partner in a social setting (either in person or online) with the intention of seeing how far they can take it (ie exchanging of phone numbers, request for intimacy etc) . A full report is then provided to you, sometimes with the inclusion of footage/recordings.

Legality: Although LEGAL, most investigators frown upon this type of entrapment situation. As the ‘honeytrap’ investigator used for these are based on your partners “ideal” (ie looks, interests, clothing sense), the argument is this type of scenario is creating a fantasy situation which may never actually occur in reality and does not actually prove whether your partner is currently being unfaithful.

Surveillance Investigators: The tried and true method of catching a cheating spouse out. If you’re looking for peace of mind as to what your spouse is doing during those ‘unexplained’ hours away from you, or alternatively what they are ‘really’ getting up to when they say they are going out with their friends – conducting surveillance remains the number 1 option for piece of mind. Using a licensed private investigator removes the emotion out of watching your partner and reviewing the investigators footage of your partners night out allows you to see exactly the type of interactions and body language your partner is displaying towards other individuals.

Legality: Surveillance undertaken by licensed, professional private investigators is LEGAL. Through training and experience surveillance investigators know the law (ie your States relevant surveillance and devices Act) and produce their findings by way of a detailed report and footage which are both admissible in Court. If you engage an unlicensed investigator or take matters into your own hands you could very well run the risk of being caught out, or having footage presented to you which has been obtained both unethically and in breach of State laws.

Online Investigators: Do you truly know your partner if you have no idea what they are doing online? Where once being secretive with your mobile phone was an immediate cause for concern of cheating, in this day age it is all about your online activity. As more and more people learn how to log on and interact with other people online, so does the old lingering thoughts of “I wonder what my high school sweetheart is doing these days?”, or “I wonder if I Google my secret desires what will come up / who will share my thoughts?”. Engaging an online investigator can uncover significant behaviours that are otherwise suppressed by your spouse in their everyday life and may just teach you something new about who your partner really is.

Legality: Online investigations conducted by licensed private investigators are LEGAL. Using the skills, experience and resources these types of investigators are able to provide a detailed report on their findings based on information which has been legally obtained. Don’t be fooled by databases online which offer similar type of services for a fraction of the cost – like most things these days, you certainly get what you pay for.

Modern Technology:

Forensic Recovery: Does your partner never leave their phone out of their sight? Do they delete text messages as soon they receive them? Is their call history always blank? Certainly one of the biggest red flags for suspicious spouses is the sudden change in their partners phone habits. With the introduction of a wide range of mobile forensic software those deleted messages may still be able to be recovered. Certainly the hardest part of using this technology is getting access to the phone itself – particularly when they don’t leave the phone out of their sight!

Legality: Lets be clear on this – if you don’t have the permission of your spouse to undertake this, then it is ILLEGAL. Even if you do have permission from your spouse there is certainly no guarantee of recovering everything off the phone leaving you with the same unanswered questions and wondering why you didn’t leave it to the professionals in the first place.

Spyware: With applications such as Stealthgenie and Spectorsoft on the market, once downloaded on a phone or computer, every single keystroke, website, text message and phone call are recorded and sent to your own inbox for your viewing pleasure. Originally created with the intention of tracking your child’s or an employees online activity, suspicious spouses everywhere have seen the benefit of utilising these to discreetly check on their partners activity without their knowledge.

Legality: ILLEGAL. Even if you own the computer/phone your spouse may be using – it’s safe to say if you’re using spyware for confirming infidelity then you will not have the permission of your spouse to record their activity.

GPS applications: With GPS technology becoming smaller and more affordable this has resulted in many suspicious spouses utilising this type of equipment to confirm their partners movements. Certainly with the invention of smart phones having built in GPS systems, iphone applications such as “Findmyphone” have spouses desperate for the truth ‘accidentally’ leaving their phone in their partners’ cars in the hopes of tracking where they go.

Legality: While tracking an individual without their knowledge (or a Court Order!) is ILLEGAL, most individuals who have tried the cheaper applications will tell you the GPS location is typically unreliable and you may end up breaking up your relationship based on incorrect information. Furthermore these pieces of equipment may tell you where your spouse my be but they certainly won’t identify who they are there with, and more importantly what they are doing. Only a surveillance investigator can obtain this information for you. **Editors note: Please check the laws of your State as the legalities of GPS tracking may differ in your location.

Hidden cameras: Once reserved for the likes of James Bond, these days a quick search online for ‘purchase hidden camera’ returns over 26,600,000 results! The fast pace of technology has allowed video and recording devices to become smaller, more affordable and the quality even better. With battery life lasting even longer, these days you can hide a hidden camera in almost anything – clocks, watches, pens, power plugs, teddy bears, smoke detectors – the list is endless! For those who are concerned about who may be visiting their spouse when you’re not home, this type of equipment has allowed many to become their own DIY spy.

Legality: ILLEGAL (in the majority of circumstances) for this type of use. For example, it is illegal in most states to record an individual without their express consent and it goes without saying that everyone should expect a reasonable sense of privacy particular in rooms such as the bedroom. Setting up hidden cameras / recording devices at your partners house will most likely end up in you seeing the footage played back via a Courtroom setting.

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People fear the future of technological surveillance

People quite rightly fear new forms of state surveillance that might possibly emerge in everyday life. They fear the future use by police of holographic data screens, citywide surveillance cameras, and multiple dimensional maps and database feeds that monitor the movements of law-abiding citizens.

They fear the future as depicted by a popular online short film called “Plurality” that has taken YouTube by storm.

People fear the use of biometric data linked to government intelligence profiles because they do not like the expanded powers that Western countries have promulgated since the September 11 terrorist attacks, which expand policing, detention, and profiling powers with little independent legal oversight.

While law-abiding citizens understand and mostly endorse enhanced security measures, they expect such measures to be used within the traditional context of the “rule of law”, which includes habeas corpus. They also expect that their confidential data will not be used in a homogenous fashion. Data collected from merchants should not be shared and used by government agencies to construct risk profiles and assessments without warrants.

However, people are quite fearful that in a world of aggregated data, which includes varied sources such as credit card purchases, Web browser histories and healthcare records, personal information will be assembled to form gigantic data footprints about individuals to aid in state surveillance.

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Busted: Apple caught tracking iPhone users… again

Another day another issue with an Apple product. Sigh. Except maybe you should hold off on that sigh, because this one’s serious. Apple has, once again, been caught tracking iPhone users.

In April 2011, analysts at a UK security conference discovered that iPhones and iPads running iOS4 had been secretly tracking their users’ every movement. Apple then denied that it was tracking users, although it did so without directly addressing the evidence brought forward by the security company.

Now it has emerged that Apple has started tracking iOS6 users so it can target them through a new tracking technology called IFA or IDfA.

The technology has, in fact, been around since June. Mobile app engagement specialist Apsalar calls it “great news for the mobile app advertising industry” and a “better alternative to the UDID”. A UDID, is the unique, indestructible serial number that every iOS number comes with. It’s also what developers were using to track people — and what Apple stopped them using in the wake of the last tracking scandal.

IFA is definitely in iOS6 — in fact that Apsalar blog post we linked to earlier mentions the fact that it’s sanctioned by Apple as one of the pros of IFA — but, as Business Insider notes, it’s definitely not listed among the features on the iOS6 page.

IFA stands for Identifier for Advertising and is sort of like a persistent cookie which works across apps and publishers. According to Business

Insider, it triggers as soon as you enter a site on your browser or use an app. The IFA is passed on to an ad server. The advertiser now knows what site you’re looking at and can send you a targeted ad.

It also allows advertisers to track you all the way to “conversion”, in the form of an app download for instance. That’s big news for advertisers and gives them a much more serious measure of their success than they could otherwise hope for. What it won’t do however is track you as an individual person. Your device is just part of a series of aggregate data points.

While tracking is turned on by default, it is at least possible to turn it off in iOS 6, although not necessarily easy.

To turn off tracking, go to the settings menu. Look under “General”, then go to “About” and then “Advertising”. Look for “Limit Ad Tracking” and turn switch it to On. It might seem a little counter intuitive but it makes sense when you think about it. You have to turn the limiter on to turn the ads off. Simple.

Given the large number of steps and the fact that Apple hasn’t exactly been shouting from the rooftops about the new technology, it’s likely that most iOS 6 users will end up being tracked.

“It’s a really pretty elegant, simple solution,” Mobile Theory CEO Scott Swanson told Business Insider. “The biggest thing we’re excited about is that it’s on by default, so we expect most people will leave it on.”

At this point, the Fandroids are probably leaning back with smug smiles on their faces. Woah there cowboy (or girl). You Android device also tracks you according GPS location, Wi-Fi hotspots the phone has encountered, and the device ID.

That said, it’s always given you the option to opt out.

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Student GPS coming to a school near you

Lo-Jack for students?

That’s what a large Houston, Texas school district has tested in two of its schools this year and will make mandatory for all students in the coming weeks. The reason? Well, school officials say due to overcrowding they need to keep track of the whereabouts of students for safety reasons.

So how does this work? There would be a small microchip embedded into a card, which students would wear on a lanyard around their neck during school hours. The card emits a radio frequency picked up by scanners positioned throughout the school. This program isn’t void of protesting parents and students that feel it impedes on their constitutional rights. However, those parents may be in for a shock when they realize that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in the past that some freedoms enjoyed by those outside of school are restricted when a student is in school, mostly for the safety of the student body.

Should a school be allowed to put GPS tracking devices on its students? It certainly sounds like an invasion of privacy and the ACLU, of course, is weighing in on the issue. This Texas school and all schools for that matter have a responsibility to keep our children safe. Supporters have argued that many schools are overcrowded and a lot of shenanigans can happen, such as fights, kids skipping school and even abductions. A device such as this could help to solve student issues and perhaps save a life.

I think it’s a mistake to create a card that acts as the main identifying mark of student. The role of administrators is to operate the school safely and teach our youth. However, with such high salaries of superintendents, they might want to consider alternative concepts, such as taking a pay cut and hiring a few more security personnel to secure the premises rather than eliminate a person’s identity.

But hey, it’s only my opinion. What do you think?

Is Big Brother watching you?

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Scary New Malware Uses Your Smartphone To Map Your House for Robbers

If you aren’t careful, much of the tech you hold near and dear can be used against you. An app called PlaceRaider, for instance, can use your phone to build a full 3D map of your house, all without you suspecting a thing.

Developed by Robert Templeman at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Indiana and a few buddies from Indiana University, PlaceRader hijacks your phone’s camera and takes a series of secret photographs, recording the time, and the phone’s orientation and location with each shot. Using that information, it can reliably build a 3D model of your home or office, and let cyber-intruders comb it for personal information like passwords on sticky notes, bank statements laying out on the coffee table, or anything else you might have lying around that could wind up the target of a raid on a later date.

You might be asking yourself “why not just take video?” There are a couple of reasons. For one, users looking for things to steal found the 3D environments to be very useful in early tests of the app. More importantly, using photos and stitching them together after transmission minimizes the amount of data the phone has to be able to send, making the whole thing especially surreptitious.

That malware app was developed on Android for practical purposes—presumably because the Android is a particularly open and tinker-friendly OS—but there’s no reason it couldn’t show up on other mobile operating systems. From there, it’s a just a matter of tricking the mark into installing an app which quietly asks for permission to control your camera, all the time. Now might be a good time to start thinking about smartphone lens caps.

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Magical Spy Sneakers

It’s a bit of a wonder that communism hasn’t fallen to its knees, screaming, “You win!” at Nike. Since 2006, the company has implanted tracking sensors into its line of Nike+ sneakers, a practice you would think certainly has political implications. A couple of weeks ago, the Hyperdunk (basketball) and Lunar (training) both received the Nike+ treatment with an updated “pressure sensor,” becoming the Hyperdunk+ and Lunar TR1+ respectively with glow-in-the-dark details. Both shoes boast sensors embedded in the “corners” of the sole and a processor in the middle that uploads all its information wirelessly to an app in your phone. This information includes how fast you’re going, your reps, and how high you’re jumping. It also calibrates your capacity for greatness based on ability and comparative effort. In other words, it knows how hard you’re trying. Drop a thousand crates of them on North Korea and it’s curtains for their labor camps.

On one hand, it’s a little scary: these shoes are kind of spying on you. Especially since the app also encourages you to upload showoff videos, and compete against others. Embed a GPS in these sneakers and suddenly you have a device that effectively puts you in jail while making you feel like you’re free. We don’t really know where all this information is going, do we? But whatever, honestly, that dark paranoia melted away after I put them on. I am used to wearing heels every day. It was extremely foreign to me to buckle down and purchase flat sandals this summer, so to wear actual sneakers is like an epiphany for my feet. These shoes were incredible (and disclaimer: no one at VICE or at Nike harassed me to write about the experience, by the way, which is extremely rare)—light, springy, insanely comfortable, and somehow exciting. They felt like I was wearing a space-age fish. I have no idea what that actually means, as up until this point I had been legitimately terrified of fish. Yes, somehow this sneaker not only lazered through my conspiracy fantasies, it also cured a phobia. Powerful.

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