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iPhone users, breathe easy: the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has recently won a court battle against the U.S. Department of Justice that gives you, and other U.S. cell phone users, a modicum of protection against the loss of your ever-dwindling rights to privacy.
Now the government must obtain a warrant based on probable cause in order to seize a user's cell phone location information. Previously, the DOJ argued that the government should have access to stored location data with a warrant based on “specific and articulable facts,” that is, fewer details necessary for a probable cause warrant.
According to Jennifer Granick, the civil liberties director of the EFF, “This [statute] is a check and a balance to insure that people for whom there’s no reason to believe they’re doing anything wrong will be left alone. It’s important to make sure there’s not a fishing expedition or some other kind of abuse of use of the vast amount of data that modern communications technology creates.”
Information that can be obtained from your cell phone service provider may include subscriber information, primary phone number and email address, credit card number, phone numbers of calls made and received, and duration of phone calls.
But users of location-aware cell phones--which includes all iPhones, not just the GPS-enabled iPhone 3G--have an important vulnerability in terms of privacy. “In order to route the call,” said Granick, “[cell phone companies know] … what sector of the tower your phone is connecting to, and also whatever other connections your phone is making to other towers, which allows [your service provider] to triangulate your position with a lot of precision.”
Fortunately, the EFF’s victory guarantees that law enforcement needs to obtain a probable cause warrant before getting your cell phone provider to locate you.
The iPhone, and other GPS-enabled cell phones can not only allow you to be tracked in real time, but also determine your previous location, based on your photos.
iPhone 3G users, and users of other GPS-enabled cell phones, should consider the ramifications photo geotagging. Photos taken from these phones are tagged with the precise location of where the picture was taken (such as your home, or the homes of your friends and family).
Granick says the information obtained from geotagging are protected under this statute… but only in specific circumstances.
If your photo is geotagged but still on your cell phone, “the police still need to have a warrant or some exception to the warrant requirement to seize your phone. But if you post that [geotagging] information on a photo website like Flickr...then you don’t have any remedy.” In other words, the police do not need a warrant to obtain information that is publicly available. Because of this, GPS cell phone users should consider removing geotags from your online photos.
Laws concerning technology are still widely disputed, and with each new discovery and new tech toy comes a potential for abuse.
Granick said, “By virtue of using our cell phones what we’ve basically built is a vast location surveillance network that has no standards. Now that this information is out there…we want to make sure that when the government uses it, it has good cause and is used for catching bad guys—not for illegitimate purposes or without good reason.”