Policy

Slip Sliding Toward Geoslavery?

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A canine victim of geoslavery - are you next?

Back in 2003, Kansas University remote sensing researcher Jerome Dobson and University of Leicester professor of geographical information Peter Fisher debuted the creepy concept of "geoslavery" in the IEEE Technology and Society Magazine. A KU press release outlined the elements of geoslavery:

By combining GIS [geographical information systems] technology with a global positioning system (GPS) and a radio transmitter and receiver, someone easily can monitor your movements with or without your knowledge. Add to that a transponder—either implanted into a person or in the form of a bracelet—that sends an electric shock any time you step out of line, and that person actually can control your movements from a distance.

As of now, police are routinely requesting GPS data obtained from users' cell phones to track them. As Wired reported last month:

Mobile carriers responded to a staggering 1.3 million law enforcement requests last year for subscriber information, including text messages and phone location data, according to data provided to Congress…

The number of Americans affected each year by the growing use of mobile phone data by law enforcement could reach into the tens of millions, as a single request could ensnare dozens or even hundreds of people. Law enforcement has been asking for so-called "cell tower dumps" in which carriers disclose all phone numbers that connected to a given tower during a certain period of time.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said that there's nothing wrong with police monitoring. The court ruled that the police did not violate a marijuana dealer's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures when they tracked him using the GPS data from his cell phone. The court declared [PDF]:

There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured payas-you-go cell phone. If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal. The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools. Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent. A getaway car could not be identified and followed based on the license plate  number if the driver reasonably thought he had gotten away unseen. The recent nature of cell phone location technology does not change this. If it did, then technology would help criminals but not the police. It follows that Skinner had no expectation of privacy in the context of this case, just as the driver of a getaway car has no expectation of privacy in the particular combination of colors of the car's paint.

Today's Washington Post reports:

The [Sixth Circuit's] decision riled civil libertarians, who warned that it opened the door to an extensive new form of government surveillance destined to be abused as sophisticated tracking technology becomes more widely available. On Monday, six days after the appeals court ruling, the U.S. attorney in Arizona cited it in defending the use of cellphone location data to help arrest a suspect accused of tax fraud…

Cellphones always have been trackable to some degree, as users moved among towers that carried the signals necessary to make the devices work, creating an electronic record in the process. But GPS technology is far more sophisticated, narrowing locations typically to within a few feet. Many smartphones relay location data to central servers throughout the day, as users check traffic, search for nearby restaurants or scan weather maps.

Combined with information from toll booths, credit card machines and security cameras, people in highly wired nations often move within a web of data that can allow governments to pinpoint individual movements down to the second.

So far, the dystopic vision of geoslavery enforced by GPS tracking combined with the abilty to administer an electric shocks to those being monitored has not come to pass. However, back in 2008, the Washington Times reported an inquiry from a Department of Homeland Security official Paul S. Ruwaldt of the Science and Technology Directorate, office of Research and Development about developing an "EMD Safety Bracelet". EMD stands for Electro-Muscular Disruption. The Times noted instead of receiving an airline boarding pass: 

The Electronic ID Bracelet, as it's referred to, would be worn by every traveler "until they disembark the flight at their destination."  Yes, you read that correctly. Every airline passenger would be tracked by a government-funded GPS, containing personal, private and confidential information, and would shock the customer worse than an electronic dog collar if the passenger got out of line.

But if you're not doing anything wrong, you've got nothing to worry about, right?