Surveillance

Where Have You Been? Your Cellphone Knows and Is Willing to Tell

Your cellphone is tracking your movements and, despite legal protections, federal, state, and local officials are finding new and disturbing ways to use that information.

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If you've ever walked through a shopping center and received a text-messaged coupon for the store you've just passed, you have a hint that your location isn't exactly a secret. Somebody out there knows where you are and is putting that information to use.

That sort of proximity marketing might be super-creepy or really helpful, depending on your tastes. But location-tracking can be dangerous if you're up against a government agency, which are more prone to shackles than to special offers. Your cellphone is tracking your movements and, despite legal protections, federal, state, and local officials are finding new and disturbing ways to use that information.

Some cops saw the potential for tracking people through their phones long before the law formally caught up.

Cory Hutcheson, the former sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri, was sentenced last April to six months in federal prison and four on house arrest for illegally tracking people's phones without a warrant. Among the people he tracked without legal cause were his predecessor in office, state troopers, and a county judge.

"For a three year period, including after being elected Sheriff of Mississippi County, Hutcheson uploaded false and fraudulent documents to a law enforcement database to obtain the location of over 200 mobile phone users," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Missouri. "Hutcheson submitted thousands of requests and obtained the location data of hundreds individual phone subscribers without valid legal authorization, and without the consent or knowledge of the targeted individual."

Hutcheson did his tracking through Securus, a prison phone provider that offered law enforcement officials location services on communications devices.* According to a 2018 ZDNet investigation into the relationship, Securus got its cellphone location data from LocationSmart, which partners with major mobile communications providers. The arrangement bypassed restrictions on government agencies acquiring such data directly from telecoms.

Fourth Amendment protections for cellphone location records gained a boost from Carpenter v United States in 2018, which found that "historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns" than GPS tagging of vehicles. But it's not yet clear how far the new protections go. Besides, Securus already required legal documentation for location requests—Hutcheson just dummied-up the paperwork.

But bad cops gonna bad cop, and they're going to do their worst with whatever tools you give them. That should be taken as a cautionary tale about the inevitable abuse of everything provided to government agencies.

Good cops—or at least, those playing by the rules—like to know where your cellphone is, too, and their actions aren't necessarily much more reassuring.

"U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement … has used [cellphone location] data to help identify immigrants who were later arrested," The Wall Street Journal reported last week. "U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another agency under DHS, uses the information to look for cellphone activity in unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert that straddle the Mexican border."

Homeland Security draws its location data from Venntel, an aggregator which itself acquires information not from telecoms, but from app companies. Think about your mapping apps, or the weather app that adjusts its forecast as you move around, or the food-ordering app that tells you which vendors are nearby. Those handy capabilities require tracking your movements, and those movements are valuable to end-users that include the Department of Homeland Security.

That said, most apps obscure individual identities in their shared data. The information purchased by the Department of Homeland Security should reveal where phones are and their movements to and from places, but unlike the LocationSmart/Securus tracking, it shouldn't connect to actual identities. That pseudonymized data, available from commercial vendors and escaping (officials believe) the restrictions of the Carpenter ruling, is still useful to government officials.

"The data was used to detect cellphones moving through what was later discovered to be a tunnel created by drug smugglers between the U.S. and Mexico that terminated in a closed Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet on the U.S. side near San Luis, Ariz., said people with knowledge of the operation," the Journal notes.

But if you correlate the data from several apps, or put together a pattern of life, you can reconnect a moving dot on a map with a human identity. "Several people in the location business said that it would be relatively simple to figure out individual identities in this kind of data," according to a New York Times report on the industry.

Most of the safeguards, it should be noted, are intended to protect people from hackers and private sector misuse of personal information. Even the Carpenter decision doesn't make specific location data on people's movements, linked to their names, unavailable—it just says that government officials need to get a warrant to track individuals. The sort of individual cellphone tracking that Sheriff Hutcheson applied to his political enemies remains available to government agencies who are willing and able to secure a search warrant.

The phones in our pockets act as location beacons, signaling generic movements of people to agencies who might want to know where groups are gathering, and broadcasting our personal locations to officials who are willing to jump through the legal hoops (or pretend to do so) to map out our travels.

Just remember that, no matter what safeguards are in place, your super-helpful cellphone is a terrible tattletale. When you carry it, your phone creates a continuous trail of where you've been, and it will tell anybody who asks in the right way.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article suggested that Securus was still in operation and may be available for general use. Before its discontinuation in 2018, the service was offered only to law enforcement officials who provided documentation.

NEXT: California Took Voters' Choices Away. Now One Lawmaker Wants to Make Voting Mandatory.

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  1. But bad cops gonna bad cop, and they’re going to do their worst with whatever tools you give them. That should be taken as a cautionary tale about the inevitable abuse of everything provided to government agencies.

    I think this is really the ultimate conclusion here. The tools exist, the laws “protecting us exist” but it all requires seamless, horizon-to-horizon integrity from every public official in the chain. Knowing that’ll never happen, the public needs tools to protect themselves. Even if those tools are amount to the knowledge that at any given time, you privacy and/or location might be being compromised at any given moment.

    Act accordingly. And if you really want to obscure your activities online or from geo-location cell data, start learning some basic tradecraft.

    1. Right now I’m being “paid” by Allstate so they can track me wherever I go. Last bill they “discounted” my car insurance by a little over $100. I think that’s how much will be discounted every 6 months. I absolutely didn’t want to turn on my phone’s GPS, but they roped me in with money.

      I’m starting to say fuck it all and just stop trying to hide. It’s not worth it and I can never actually be 100% private anyway, no matter what I do, even if I go completely off line, which is practically impossible.

      1. And that’s fair and should be your choice. I just think it’s important to be informed, and then let people decide how much they want to obscure, and where helpful, give people a few tips on the basics.

        Most people don’t want to live their lives engaging in ‘spy tradecraft’, but if you really want to obscure your location and online activities, you sometimes have to engage in at least a modicum of it.

        1. And, I’d say by doing all this tradecraft to hide, you ironically draw attention to yourself.

          1. Ehh, depends. The average person doesn’t need to engage in it. But if you have something to hide (and I’m not judging who and what), having a burner phone, using VPNs, accessing websites that you don’t want tracked back to you with a laptop or device that contains no personal information anywhere on the device (so it can be discarded quickly without worry) people should at least be aware of the options.

          2. Don’t underestimate the smug satisfaction you get from seeing a pic of your family in your wife’s FB feed and realizing that hers is the only face it recognizes.

            Also underestimated, the smug satisfaction that nobody under the age of about 15 uses FB anymore.

            1. I certainly don’t.

            2. Everyone says they don’t use it yet Fakebook had record earnings!

              1. Never stop using social media as that is solution for better life. Spend you time as well at Gold Coast sex date and chat with local ladies

      2. Do you shop around for car insurance?

        Most people don’t shop around for car insurance and the insurance companies take advantage of it. They give you “loyalty bonuses” and discounts while your rates never went down based on real factors like accident history.

        Don’t even get me started on how states regulate insurance to such a degree and set rates with the insurance companies just so supposedly everyone has car insurance.

        BTW: your vehicle depreciates very quickly so why dont your insurance rates go down every year? Insurance companies use after market parts on repaired vehicles and resell barely damaged parts since they “own” the parts once they pay for repairs.

        Look at the difference between homeowners insurance and insurance for other domestic things like renters insurance and jewelry compared to auto insurance and you will see the scam.

        Insurance companies in Georgia have worked out a scam with courts that if there is a lawsuit in jury trial, the jury is not to be told details about insurance coverage. Heaven forbid juries award injured Plaintiffs just compensation because they have an insurance company deep pocket.

    2. And if you really want to obscure your activities online or from geo-location cell data, start learning some basic tradecraft.

      Does forgetting your cellphone count as tradecraft?

      1. If you’re strategic about when you “forget” it, I’m inclined to allow it.

  2. “Cory Hutcheson, the former sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri, was sentenced last April to six months in federal prison and four on house arrest for illegally tracking people’s phones without a warrant. Among the people he tracked without legal cause were his predecessor in office, state troopers, and a county judge.”

    10 months in prison, four of them at home, for violating the constitutional rights of a judge, an ex-sheriff, and fellow cops.

    Imagine what the consequences would have been if he’d illegally tracked some dirtbag civilians!

    1. A raise and extra training, with enhanced training pay.

    2. I suppose I should say four months in *detention,* four of them at home.

    1. So for $2000 I can FEEL like I’m not being tracked. Thanks.

      1. The version made in China is $750, FWIW

      2. I already see that I will start using my 3310 once again. This is all BS nowadays. Only problem is that I can’t chat with https://localfuckdate.net/ girls if I stop using smart phone

  3. If only there were a way to prevent the physical tracking of my whereabouts by the device I keep in my pocket….

    1. …while actually being able to use it.

  4. Good cops—or at least, those playing by the rules…

    Where do these mythical creatures exist?

  5. Pro tip: Leave the phone at home when you leave to commit a crime. It ain’t rocket surgery.

    1. If you need a phone while committing a crime, use a burner. If possible, an old flip phone type with removable battery.

      1. Your first crime should be stealing somebody else’s phone to carry with you on your second.

    2. they *never* do it’s hilarious … “we tracked his phone through 17 towers between his house and the murder” lol

      1. It reminds me, and there was a local news story recently, of the guys that bring their wallet, driver’s license, family photos, and all to the crime.

        1. if i was going to crime i’d plan much better. i think some of these spur-of-the-moment criminals don’t watch enough Investigation Discovery first

          1. Prisons and jails refuse to show Discovery crime shows for this reason. 🙂

  6. I am interested in at least basic things to at least cut down on scammers and annoying advertisers.

    Any suggestions out there from the techies here?

    1. I keep my location function turned off. The only noticeable inconvenience is I don’t use a GPS function when walking around. I’m not sure if it helps with privacy, but I also turned off the cellular access on nearly every app (so they work only when the phone is on wifi at home or at work). I did the latter to save on data usage, but I suspect it means no app tracking as well.

  7. Cory Hutcheson, the former sheriff of Mississippi County, Missouri, was sentenced last April to six months in federal prison and four on house arrest for illegally tracking people’s phones without a warrant

    , in addition to having his location publicly streamed for the rest of his life, right? RIGHT?!

  8. We need to get rid of the third party doctrine and make it plain that any records held by persons acting as your agent are your records. Just extend the idea of the lawyer/client privilege to your doctor, your bank, your credit card companies, your ISP, your cable TV and cellphone service provider, and anybody else you do business with – unless you sign a specific waiver and there’s none of this “affiliated business partners” sharing crap where “affiliated business partners” means “anybody who will pay us a nickel for your information”.

    1. – unless you sign a specific waiver

      You mean like a TOS?

      I agree with your underlying sentiment, but I think eliminating 3rd Party Doctrine will effectively liquidate corporate service providers.

      1. effectively liquidate corporate service providers

        In a catastrophic fashion.

        We already wring our hands and wonder “WTF will we do?” if we repealed section 230 and 3rd Party is much older, lower-level, and (maybe tautologically) more aligned with the 4A.

  9. “Your cellphone is tracking your movements and, despite legal protections, federal, state, and local officials are finding new and disturbing ways to use that information.”

    So one rogue cop falsified documents and committed a crime, but it was more of a workplace personal nature. He was tracking a former superior, cops, and a judge, for example.

    And looking to see what’s up when you see pings where no pings should be, and catch illegal border crossers, that’s a pretty good idea (I’m not passing judgement on this particular topic, but the officers are paid to do a job and they found a way to do it better).

    Where’s the horrifying scary “new and disturbing” parts I was promised? If my car runs off the road, if I get lost, if I get abducted, if I need an alibi if falsely accused of a crime, having a phone track my GPS could be a godsend. I see many opportunities for this technology to help me, everything else is already illegal or anonymized, and I don’t plan on committing crimes, so this story was kind of “meh.”

    1. Oh it’s a good thing then

      Like the chip my dogs have if they get lost!

  10. Well! Every evening I strap it to my dogs collar in a cute little pouch and let him out for at least a 1/2 hour run. I wonder where I’ve been?

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  14. As long as a cellular telephone is in “standby” mode, which enables it to receive calls, it can be tracked. To turn off tracking for real, just turn the device fully off, but then you won’t be able to receive calls on it. It’s a trade-off, isn’t it?

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  16. I think ERU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is going to help us here. Right now, with android apps, it is basically the wild west. They track everything, repackage and sell your data. And the user has very little leeway. GDPR stomps on that practice.

  17. “When you carry it, your phone creates a continuous trail of where you’ve been,”

    It’s not really ‘your phone’ if you have no control over its features. This is one lesson we can learn from the Luddites.

  18. Simple solution … get rid of your smart phone and your addiction to it will follow. By a simple flip phone or return to a landline. Free yourself from your bondage …….

    1. They can still see which towers a flip phone connects to.

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  20. The warrant is currency to obtain the tracking information. Sheriff Hutcheson’s counterfeited warrants were detected as forgeries. I would assume that many others have more sophisticated counterfeiting techniques than some local Sheriff from Mississippi County, Missouri.

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