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How location privacy is changing

gps trackingIn the wake of News of the World’s phone-hacking scandal, we’re all considering the price that technology takes on our privacy. It isn’t a new development, nor is it all that surprising ethical boundaries have been pushed, prodded, and completely crossed – but it’s still concerning.

Your information continues to be at risk, and it’s been proved time and time again that no matter how secure a database should be, it can (and recently, will) be infiltrated. And of course there’s also the trust we place in various social networks where, for many of us, our entire lives are documented and make very nice, easy targets for advertisers. Given the scope of the issue, it nearly feels pointless to resist. But there are still a few things that most consumers don’t want accessed without their permissions, and one of them is location.

A New Jersey court has ruled that spouses who suspect their significant other is cheating can use a GPS tracking device to record his or her location. According to the Star-Ledger, Kenneth Villanova sued his wife and her private investigator after finding out she’d been using such a gadget to spy on his whereabouts – which included the home of someone who was not his wife. His suit was denied.

Now this case itself isn’t terribly upsetting: It was a shared vehicle, and the wife was the one who put the tracking device in the car, not the investigator. But there are bigger implications from this court case than just being able to legally track your partner. Next year the Supreme Court will decide how much authority the government has when it comes to long-term GPS location-tracking of suspected criminals without warrants. The case in question involves Antoine Jones, who was convicted in 2008 on drug charges. Most of the evidence leading to his arrest was collected via a GPS tracking device the FBI attached to his car without a warrant.

Privacy advocates argue this violates Fourth Amendment rights, but it’s somewhat difficult to get terribly righteous when in these two cases–a man buying and selling mass amounts of cocaine and another cheating on his wife–are the victims. But if it’s ruled that the government can track criminal suspects without a warrant, it’s just a step in a direction we don’t want to go; especially when you take into account that GPS systems have been used to track the average citizen for breaking traffic laws. It was recently revealed that TomTom collected user data and sold it to police in the Netherlands to help them track down those who broke the speed limit or ran red lights.

The authorities who tracked Jones defend themselves, and say GPS tracking is extremely helpful in the early stages of an investigation. The case may also set a precedent for how we regard this type of surveillance, called the mosaic theory. It basically means that what would be important is how long and how much the government had been tracking a person. It would give police the ability to track you, but also allow citizens to know when they can clearly accuse authorities of stepping over the line. Right now, it’s definitely something of a gray area and is obviously allowing for too much interpretation.

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