GPS raises significant issues of mobile privacy

The government’s been in bed with the entire telecommunications industry since the forties. They’ve infected everything. They get into your bank statements, computer files, e-mail, listen to your phone calls…. Every wire, every airwave. The more technology used, the easier it is for them to keep tabs on you. It’s a brave new world out there. At least it better be…Brill from the film 'Enemy of the State' (Touchstone Pictures 1998)

In Tony Scott’s 1998 blockbuster, “Enemy of the State”, a successful Washington DC lawyer is hunted down by a government intelligence group, after he is inadvertently given a video tape revealing the murder of a congressman. As he attempts to gather the facts with the intention to release them to the public’s eye, the full weight of the government’s surveillance equipment is swung into action – everything from coin size bugging devices and telephone location tracing to real-time satellite surveillance. The lawyer’s bank details, phone records and other extremely personal details are brought up and manipulated with ease by the government using their extensive computer networks (Touchstone Pictures 1998). Although at the time of the movies release the majority of the technology displayed in this film appeared far fetched and extremely unlikely. Step forward seven years and most, if not all of the equipment, suddenly seems all the more plausible.

Global Positioning Systems, or GPS as it is more commonly referred to, is one such technology that transforms science fiction into reality. It is a satellite-based navigation system, made up of 24 satellites placed into orbit by the United State Department of Defence, making it possible for people back on earth to pinpoint their geographic location using a receiver unit (Garmin 2000, p. 1). At the time of the films release technologies such as GPS did exist, however, unlike the equipment portrayed in the movie the accuracy of these devices was far from perfect. However, in more recent times, by using more advanced technologies such as Carrier-Phase Enhancement (CPGPS), the accuracy of GPS device has increased to within twenty to thirty centimetres (Wikipedia 2006). Even more astonishingly, some Differential GPS (DGPS) systems claim to be accurate to around one centimetre (Wikipedia 2006). It would seem that Hollywood has once again made some very accurate speculations of what the future would hold.

One of the key factors for the success of “Enemy of the State” was that it highlighted the potential for governments to invade the privacy of its citizens. Audiences worldwide were terrified of the possibility that intelligence organisations such as the National Security Agency had the potential to record their phone calls and track their movements even though most considered the technology to be quite some time away. Several years have passed since the films release, and now GPS is increasingly being adopted by private and public sectors to track and monitor humans for Location Based Services (LBS) (Wikipedia 2006). For example, current applications include locators for children, the elderly or those suffering from severe memory loss, and the monitoring of individuals for law enforcement, security or personal protection purposes (Dempsey 2001). The constant miniaturisation of GPS technology means that receivers can now take the form of wristwatches and be placed inside mobile phones and jewellery, all with the ability to pinpoint the exact longitude and latitude of a subject, twenty four hours a day – seven days a week. The purpose of this essay is to consider and explore the issues of mobile privacy that are raised in relation to Global Positioning Systems, and to analyse the emerging ethical concerns facing current and future GPS applications. Specific focus will be directed towards surveillance and identity, as most citizens in Australia believe they should have the right to remain anonymous if they so wish.

Although the technology behind GPS is quite complex, the theory behind how the system functions is relatively straightforward. GPS satellites circle the earth twice a day, travelling in a very strict orbit and constantly transmit signal information back towards the earth. Receiver units take this information and use triangulation to calculate the user’s exact location. Essentially, the GPS receiver compares the time a signal was transmitted by a satellite with the time it was received. This difference in time is then used to calculate how far away the satellite is. The receiver must be locked on to at least three satellite signals in order to calculate the 2D position – that is, the longitude and latitude. If the receiver is able to obtain the signal from four or more satellites, it can then determine the user’s 3D position: longitude, latitude and now altitude. With this continuously updated data, software within the device can then plot a user’s position against map information, and calculate other details such as speed, trip distance, distance to destination and other useful information (Garmin 2000, p. 1-16). Although GPS is fundamentally a passive mechanism, in that it does not inherently transmit location information to any other device, it can be combined with transmitters and transponders allowing the data to be transmitted to another party – hence the potential danger (Clarke 2000).

The benefits of the technology are quite obvious – people now no longer have any excuse for getting lost. Another useful example is of that of “Enhanced-911” in the United States. Prior to 2001, if you called 911 on a mobile phone but were unable to talk, or the signal dropped out before you could alert the operator of your location, emergency services had no way of determining where you are. This could potentially result in a loss of human life. However, with the development of Enhanced-911, emergency services can now determine the geographic location of the caller instantly to within fifty metres (Allen 2006). Although no one can object to the fact that it is a truly incredible life-saving tool, with it comes several potential issues. The implementation of the system has, and continues to cost mobile telephone companies millions of dollars, as they are required to update their infrastructure and their client’s phones to comply with FCC regulations (Said & Kirby 2006). Because of this, one of the ways these telecommunications companies can recover their losses is by partnering with organisations that offer location-based services allowing vendors, for example, to send messages to their customers when they are in the vicinity alerting them to discounts or reminding them that their current hire is overdue. The hope is that customers will appreciate receiving information that is specially customised to their location and interests; however, there is the threat that this new technology will create with it a bombardment of mobile phone spam and much more significantly and dangerously, jeopardize phone customers’ privacy (Said & Kirby 2006).

The theory behind Location-based Commerce, as it is known, is that as one goes about their everyday business, their mobile phone will provide them with useful information, based on their current location (Said & Kirby 2006). Another example is that a theatre might transmit a message to any previous customers nearby alerting them that as their upcoming performance has unsold seats, they are offering a substantial discount on their sale. In principle, this system is very handy, as it helps both the business who may sell more tickets, and the customer who may not have known that the show was on. However in practise, imagine if you were walking through a shopping complex and every individual store that you have purchased from in the past suddenly started to send you messages? Although government organisations such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority attempt to prohibit unsolicited messages and advertising, and customers should, in theory, have complete control over who can send them messages, in reality due to the nature of the technology, this is very hard to manage. Anyone can purchase an almost untraceable pre-paid phone and send junk mail to whomever they please. However, this is hardly the major concern. In the United States, because all mobile phone must support Enhanced-911, that means every phone must have the ability to receive GPS information, which as a result means that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has the ability, after receiving a court order, to determine your exact location at any time (Allen 2000). It should be noted that it is extremely difficult for the FBI to actually gain the court order, and they have been rejected in the past (Chestnutt 2006), however, there are loopholes which law enforcement agencies (and their friends in government agencies) have been known to use and abuse (Clarke 2000), making the Enemy of the State plot seem so much more conceivable. The simple fact remains that if the government wanted to spy on you in the United States – the technology exists for them to do so. Luckily for Australians, an Enhanced-000 service currently does not exist, meaning that it is not a requirement for all mobile phones to contain a GPS device. However, emergency services can still determine your approximate location to within 50 to 500 metres by determining how far away you are from phone communication towers (ACMI 2006).

But it is not just the Federal Bureau of Investigation that is making use of GPS technology. In July of 2003, Robert Moran, a lawyer with supposed links to the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club and suspected of selling illegal drugs, had a GPS tracing device placed on his car by the New York State Police (McCullagh 2005). The police made the decision to utilise GPS technologies as opposed to more traditional means (like undercover officers), as they believed this was the only way to gain access into the tremendously cautious organisation. The police monitored Moran’s travels from a distance, and eventually arrested him on drug charges a month later (McCullagh 2005). But the most interesting aspect of this particular case is that a federal judge ruled that the police did not need court authorisation for the GPS tracking to take place. United States District Judge David Hurt stated that “law enforcement personnel could have conducted a visual surveillance of the vehicle as it travelled on the public highways” and therefore “Moran had no expectation of privacy in the whereabouts of his vehicle on a public roadway” (McCullagh 2005). Although Moran was eventually found guilty on charges of conspiracy and drug trafficking, the important thing to keep in mind is that the police were allowed and are still allowed to track anyone they suspect has committed a crime, even if there is no substantial evidence to back the claim (Bray 2005). Do the police have the right to put someone under GPS surveillance without visiting a judge? According to US Attorney David Grable, yes “since it’s not a search, you don’t need any justification to use any one of these devices” (Bray 2005). However, should they have the right, is a completely different question. Australia is no different to the United States, except as there is a smaller percentage of police per citizen, there are fewer resources to devote to tracking people without ample evidence, therefore there is less potential for GPS tracking to take place – however, the possibility is still there (A.I.C 2006). For example, seven years after MP John Newman was murdered in 1994, the police used mobile phone records to determine that Phuong Ngo, a former Fairfield local councillor and suspect, was in the vicinity of the murder, and also, later that night, near the location where the murder weapon was found (The World Today 2001). Not all people agree with using this kind of technology. In 2004, Nassau County Court Judge Joseph Calabrese stated that “at this time, more than ever, individuals must be given the constitutional protections necessary to their continued unfettered freedom from a ‘big brother’ society” (New York Daily News 2005).

But it’s not just the government and law enforcements that have their eye on GPS: companies are using it to spy on their workers; wives are using it to keep tabs of their husbands, mothers of their children. GPS devices are being built into more and more automobiles and are being embedded into mobile phones (Bray 2005). At the end of the day however, the more people that utilise GPS technology, the easy it is for authorities to keep track of everyone. In theory a database could be set up maintaining a list of where everyone is or was at any given time. Enemy of the State could become reality. And as long as those cars or phones are on public roads, the users have no right to object (Bray 2005). However, what the courts failed to consider in the US, is that tracking people via GPS is very different from keeping tabs of them on foot or by vehicle. Before GPS existed, the limited budgets and the lack of man power restricted officers from following anyone they please. But with a cheap and widespread technology like GPS the temptation to engage in casual surveillance may become irresistible (Bray 2005). Although there are obviously benefits to GPS technology the potential for unethical surveillance and monitoring are too great to ignore. With information comes power – and with GPS devices widely spread throughout society, anyone that has access to this data holds the upper hand. Allowing the FBI (or their international equivalent) to have access to this information is scary enough – but what if there systems become compromised and a criminal gains access? Or what if the government officials are corrupt? Sure there are monitors in place, but as Carla Dean states in Enemy of the State, “who’s gonna monitor the monitors of the monitors” (Touchstone Pictures 1998)…