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Cell Phone, or Personal Tracking Device?

If you're planning on committing a crime, cheating on your spouse or lying to your employer about where you've been, it may be a good idea to leave your cell phone at home.

Motorola Droid
AP
Motorola Droid

Google's recent announcement that it will offer turn-by-turn navigation to users of the Motorola Droid is the latest example of the precision with which cell phones are now able to identify their user's location, and as these capabilities improve, they strip their owners of the little privacy they had left.

Trial attorney Michael Starr of Akin Gump law firm has seen prosecutors use cell phone GPS records to prove a defendant had been where a woman alleged he took her and raped her. Divorce lawyer Sandy Ain of Ain & Bank Law has used phone records to prove a spouse has been unfaithful. And through services like Loopt and Google Latitude, which rely on the GPS signal from cell phones, people can learn their friends' exact locations.

But while these services can be of great use to honest users, they also provide room for abuse, said Charles Golvin, a technology analyst at Forrester Research.

"Any technology can be abused, that's the simple reality of things," he said. "If you deal with untrustworthy people they can find ways to do the same sort of thing. It just makes it easier."

Through his research at Forrester, Golvin said people continuously say that privacy is important to them. At the same time, he said, they sign up for rewards cards at grocery stores, even though they require shoppers to give up personal information and allow the stores to track their purchases. People also willingly give away information at the chance to win prizes, such as a big screen TV.

"Privacy is not something that is black or white," he said. "If you think that what they're offering you is worth the price of information, then you're willing to make that exchange."

But this exchange can become dangerous when it comes to detailing your whereabouts. In June, an Arizona man said he thought posts he made to his Twitter account about a vacation he was taking may have aided a robber who stole thousands of dollars in video equipment from his home.

This danger only becomes amplified with services such as Loopt, where people share their exact or approximate location with other approved devices. Though the company details safety tips on its Web site — including a checklist for how to decide whether to share your location with somebody — and provides the option to restrict how much detail certain people can see, the decision of how much information to release is ultimately up to users.

The use of GPS devices isn't restricted to live updates, either. Private investigators and lawyers are more frequently using phone records to prove guilt in court cases ranging from murder trials to divorce proceedings.

This is where invasion of privacy really comes into play, because cellular companies risk being sued for distributing the information unlawfully. While Ain said a subpoena is required by law to obtain a third party's cell phone records, many investigators are "innovative" and can finesse their way into getting a provider to tell them what they want to know.

"If someone wants something bad enough there's probably a way to get it," Ain said. "That doesn't make it right, it doesn't make it legal, it doesn’t make it proper and it doesn't make it admissible in court."

What's more, there isn't a concrete national law pertaining to cell phone GPS records, as the Supreme Court hasn't yet ruled on this topic. And with no decision pending, that leaves a lot of wiggle room for private investigators and lawyers looking to obtain the records, as they only have to meet a judge's definition of a "reasonable expectation of privacy," he said.

Because of a 1999 Federal Communications Commission law that required all cell phones to come equipped with GPS technology by late 2005 to assist emergency crews responding to calls, more than half of the cell phones on the market offer some form of GPS, Golvin said. By 2012, Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski predicts that 200 million cell phones in the US will have GPS technologies.

Some phones still rely on assistance from satellites, making them less accurate than standard navigation devices such as a Garmin, which can detect its position within a few meters. They can also be hampered by environmental factors, such as heavy cloud cover or being indoors. But their accuracy is far more exact than when they relied on cell towers — and it's only improving, Golvin said.

"Undoubtedly, the ability to precisely locate a device — and by implication the person holding it — will only increase," he said.

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