Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Al Franken on "Target" Regarding Location Privacy and Stalking Apps

In a recent opinion piece appearing on Wired.com, Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) examines the issue of information and location privacy in the digital world.  Franken, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology & the Law, introduced last June the Location Privacy Protection Act.  The bill, co-sponsored by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), calls for...
greater restriction of information-sharing by internet and cellular companies with third parties such as advertisers.  The Franken-Blumenthal bill does not address use or collection of such information by authorities at any level, but a similar bill also introduced last summer does.

The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act is “designed to give government agencies, commercial entities and private citizens clear guidelines for when and how geolocation information can be accessed and used.”  In an article on ArsTechnica.com, the bill's co-sponsor, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), is quoted as saying, "I take the fourth amendment very seriously.  The law enforcement community is going too far [by using GPS tracking without a warrant.]"  The bill, also sponsored by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), essentially calls for GPS tracking by law enforcement to require the same warrant as a phone wire-tap.  Wired.com's initial article covering both bills, ends with this sentence regarding the Wyden-Chaffetz bill:  
Companies would need explicit consent from users in order to share their location data, and those who stalk others with this information would be considered criminals.
"Those who stalk others" refers to an aspect of location and information privacy you may or may not be familiar with.  In Franken's piece, the Senator refers to "stalking apps" marketed by private companies to individuals for tracking the daily movements of their significant other.  If the notion of hubby knowing when you're on the other side of town during your lunch hour strikes you as alarming, consider the possibilities.  

For a person to track another person by, say, their cell phone, the "trackee's" device must have a unique electronic signature or code in the GPS system for a "tracker" to identify said trackee.  It's safe to guess that most, if not all companies providing this service simply use the person's cel phone number as the code.  More importantly--and disturbingly--though, what's to stop the tracker from sharing the trackee's identifying code with others using the same service?  Is there a limit to this number?  It could be ten, it could be one hundred, it could be one hundred thousand.  If you think that sounds outrageous, welcome to 2012 and the aging world of subscription satellite radio, which for the receiver/consumer, provides an obvious model for how a group would be able to obtain GPS-location information on an individual.  The information being delivered to the satellite is certainly different, but the ability of an infinite number of people to receive the data on the ground is exactly same, except, of course, in that GPS location information would require significantly less bandwidth, and an infinitely small amount of "production" and maintenance by the company providing the service.  

Also, are we to believe that when authorities use the technology, they assign a given trackee to a single beat-cop and hope he's not busy with a burglary at 5th and Main when the trackee is planning a cyanide attack or his next rape?  No, and in fact, there is no reason such a situation, as outrageous as it may sound, would have to be restricted by locality or by the number of people involved.  A service that alerts someone in a hypothetical "tracking group" to a trackee's proximity within a set distance of the tracker is no stretch of the imagination.  In fact, it requires no imagination at all.  A fully automated text-message including a photograph of the trackee would be automatically sent as a text message to a tracker in the group when the trackee comes within, say, one hundred yards.  Thus, if an individual being tracked tried to escape the tracking, which would of course qualify as stalking, by moving from say, Ohio to California, Californians in the same tracking group would have no problem identifying him. 

Further supporting the urgent need to control GPS-tracking technology, Franken points to incidents brought to his attention by the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women in which women had been stalked and harassed by an abusive husband or boyfriend who had been tracking their every move.  At the risk of my group conspiratorial line inducing a groan by drifting into the distopian, I will now present a hypothetical situation reciprocal to the troubling instances of stalking presented to Franken by the MCBW:

Imagine 2 young girls whose father is in the habit of physically abusing their mother, sometimes severely.  The family's home life is often horrifying and the girls grow up emotionally scarred.  The younger of the two descends into a life of habitual drug use that can't be solved by several family interventions.  The older sister grows up to be an attorney who specializes in defending corporations against workman's comp claims.  Despite a successful law career, she develops a problem with alcohol and is on a number of prescription psychoactive drugs because of the childhood memories that haunt her despite her professional success.  Maybe through her A.A. meetings, maybe through her Yoga groups, or maybe on-line, she meets women who suffered the same terrible childhood experiences.  She also finds out about an on-line network of these women and joins up.  As her marriage crumbles, she establishes an on-line profile on singles' sites and buys a remote condo on the top floor of a high-rise with a balcony, all long before her divorce is final.  She meets a fella on-line who doesn't fully understand the depth of her personal scars.  After he moves in with her, she executes a calculated, escalating regiment of psychological abuse involving veiled death threats and, believe it or not, hints that she is not tracking the man's movements by his cell phone, but in fact eavesdropping on his calls.  Yes, that's right.  Mr. Franken's article doesn't refer to it, but software that allows a private user to eavesdrop on the calls of another person's cel phone does, in fact, exist.  Worse yet, this software can turn the phone into an open microphone monitoring everything that goes on in the trackee's life.

The day after the eavesdropping hint, the man escapes.  About a year later, right around the time he'd been telling the story of his experience with the woman to friends both through e-mail and on the phone, the man begins to notice that he is apparently being stalked by a network of women, many of whom fit the same basic physical description as his brief former roommate.  Many of them have a background in psychology.  Some volunteer the fact that they'd been abused as a child and make strange comments about neuroplasticity.  Others make comments about "behavior modification." One directly insinuates that the man is the subject of a psychological experiment. Another openly accuses him of being a "sexual predator."

Soon the man realizes that he is also being stalked and harassed apparently by members of various levels of law enforcement, one of whom indicates through a thickly veiled hint that his former roommate filed a false complaint about him that was an itemized list, apparently detailing various kinds of heinous abuse and who knows what else.  Many of the people stalking him are psychologists.  Many have a military background and the situation evolves to where his life has become an ongoing interrogation by complete strangers he's more than happy to talk to because the woman's complaint has effectively made him a social pariah.  

During this horrifying experience, the man, an intuitive grammar nerd, notices that something seems wrong with sentences being used by many of his stalkers.  Through his research of the situation and attempts to rectify it, he stumbles on neurolinguistic programming, or N.L.P., a verbal communication method used to covertly manipulate others.  Finally, and most disturbingly, his research leads him to mind-control tactics.  After three years in which the man's life was an ongoing nightmare, he finally makes contact with the mother of the troubled woman's subsequent boyfriend and learns that the entire household recently obtained a restraining order against her due to her harassment of all of them and her highly erratic, um, behavior.

In this horrifying scenario straight out of the Twilight Zone, not only is the man never arrested or held to trial, but is never officially notified of the deeply troubled woman's bogus complaint.  Of course, such a thing would never occur here in the United States.  But to complete our hypothetical exploration of the potential abuse of GPS-tracking technology, consider what it might be like if a covert extremist political group used the tracking technology to, as a group, stalk and harass an individual for--you guessed it--political reasons?  The ramifications of such a scenario create a sobering Orwellian picture of freedoms systematically and secretly suppressed by self-righteous radical political groups or any other group that wields enough influence to have a large network of trackers. Hopefully, between the Franken bill and the Wyden bill, large steps will be made on the path toward stopping the gross violation of privacy and civil liberty currently made possible by unregulated GPS tracking technology, both public and private.

Suggested reading:  http://www.textfiles.com/stories/mindwar


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