“Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." — Benjamin Franklin
Last year Malte Spitz, of the German Green Party, went to court to find out about the location tracking of his cellphone and the data retained by the provider, T-Mobile (Deutsche Telecom). The results astonished him: During the months from September 2009 to February 2010 T-Mobile stored his GPS location more than 35,000 times, including train rides.
He decided to publish the data to show people what kind of surveillance cellphone users are subject to every minute. “I want to show the political message that this kind of data retention is really, really big, and you can really look into the life of people for six months and see what they are doing where they are.” said Spitz.
Cellphone location tracking is becoming a big issue since most new phones are equipped with some form of GPS location technology, and, while you can disable some forms of tracking every time you check your email, change cells, or send/receive a text message, your location is recorded.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies all over the world want access to that data instantaneously without limits. The easy use of the technology to access the information makes some people believe that there is no harm in it. But location tracking and movement data is very sensitive information. It can be used for profiling and reveal relationships: It would be very easy for agencies with access to the information to track the people we meet, cross-reference databases with the location of our contacts, and check our location when we update our Facebook status, send/receive email, or just text messages.
Now the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wants law enforcement agencies to tell the public to what extent they use, or will use, location tracking. The civil rights organization has sent formal requests to 379 local law enforcement agencies “demanding to know when, why, and how they are using cellphone location data to track Americans.”
Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU says, “The ability to access cellphone location data is an incredibly powerful tool, and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has the right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government.”
I mentioned in a previous post the words of Judge Lisa Pupo Leniha, of the US District Court for Western Pennsylvania:
...the location information so broadly sought is extraordinarily personal and potentially sensitive; and that the ex parte nature of the proceedings, the comparatively low cost to the Government of the information requested, and the undetectable nature of a CSP’s electronic transfer of such information, render these requests particularly vulnerable to abuse...
The Court emphasizes that the issue is not whether the Government can obtain movement/location information, but only the standard it must meet to obtain a Court Order for such disclosure and the basis of authority. It emphasizes that the Fourth Amendment standard is not a difficult one, requiring only that the Government support its belief of criminal activity and the probable materiality of the information to be obtained.
Also, any collected information by law enforcement agencies should be destroyed after the investigation is completed, except in cases where it becomes evidence in a criminal case. Retaining data is as dangerous to privacy as obtaining it.
I like the words of Dutch European MP Marietje Schaake during an interview last December: “Open government needs to be the standard and secrecy needs to be the exception. So I hope that this moment will be used to create more openness. I hope that trust can be rebuilt effectively between government politicians and people.”
I do believe the law enforcement agencies have the right to access any kind of information as part of a criminal investigation, but the standard they need to meet to access the information has to be very high, including a court order. The ability to access the location information with a mouse click, because it is technologically possible, has to be restricted and only used within those standards. Nobody should believe that the technology to access the information, because it is easy and fast to use, gives anyone the right to spy on individuals.