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Geoslavery: Location-Awareness Gone Wrong?

Nov 03, 20105 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftRFID

Could enhanced surveillance via geospatial technology and location-aware cell phones bring on geoslavery?

Long ago, way back in 2003, researchers Jerome Dobson and Peter Fisher published Geoslavery, a paper about a potential threat that might be created by location based information in the near future. Geoslavery is defined as “the practice in which one entity, the master, coercively or surreptitiously monitors and exerts control of another individual or slave.” If the “master” discovered the “slave’s” coordinates were different than the acceptable area of physical location, then the master could send a command to be “transmitted instantaneously to the transponder, which would administer punishment. The result would be an electronic form of geoslavery, equivalent to a human robot.”

The researchers also wrote, “Parents who choose to protect their children through surveillance and location control now may do so in the extreme. Tyrants who choose to dominate their subjects, husbands and wives who choose to dominate their spouses, and employers who choose to dominate their employees now may do so in the extreme.”

In today’s world, enhanced surveillance is all around us. It’s common for CCTV to collect surveillance, for employers to issue RFID enabled badges, for GPS to be on cars, and for people to keep their cell phone nearby at all times. There are people who are ordered to wear GPS “prisoner” tracking devices. People with Alzheimer’s have worn RFID bracelets in the name of keeping them safe. Some people have asked if geospatial tracking of sex offenders is acceptable, then why not use the same tracking measures to enforce restraining orders, or to keep track of thieves or drunk drivers? In other words, electronic tagging and tracking could be used to create virtual prisons.

V1 Magazine asked how creepy does the use of geospatial technology need to get before there’s a major backlash? The article mentions the use of RFID technology to track students, back-scatter body scanners in vans and at airports, the Google Street View Wi-Fi capture disaster, and Facebook’s Places location sharing and photo tagging features.

There is definitely an abundance of technology that tracks us. If your cell phone is turned on, there is a possibility that your physical location could be determined at any time of the day or night. Although the authors of Geoslavery were not necessarily talking about location aware apps for smart phones, our apps have a habit of leaking data. Sites like icanstalku or pleaserobme are helping to make people aware of the dangers from oversharing our locations. Geoslavery is still sci-fi-like but creeping closer to what could become a reality in this world where location awareness is becoming common.

What if an employee called in sick, but an employer could track the employee to discover he or she was running around all over town instead of at home as if truly ill? How far away is your cell phone right now? Are you at home where you should feel you have a right to privacy? It would be too creepy to think your smart phone could be used against you, even when you are not using it, but we know the technology can be used for surveillance and that the government has asked for historical cell phone tracking records.

The Fourth Amendment gives people the right to be secure in their home against unreasonable searches and seizures. When the government tried to get historical cell site data, Judge Orenstein ruled that cell phone tracking is likely more revealing than a GPS device attached to a car, because the cell phone is carried on the person. Cell phone tracking would also be more intrusive, because the phone can be monitored from inside your home where people have the greatest expectation of privacy. Under current location technology, cell site information reveals non-public information about constitutionally protected spaces. Judge Orenstein held that the government needs a warrant based on probable cause to compel a cell phone provider to give it historical cell phone tracking records.

Judge Orenstein also ruled that “technology has progressed to the point where a person who wishes to partake in the social, cultural, and political affairs of our society has no realistic choice but to expose to others, if not to the public as a whole, a broad range of conduct and communications that would previously have been deemed unquestionably private.” He also said, “Commercial location-tracking services tout their subscribers’ ability to limit, or even delete, the dissemination of such information. Simply put, there is no reason to think that the advance of technology brings with it an expectation that privacy is lost; rather, I assume that it serves only to increase awareness of the importance of privacy and to whet the appetite for ways to manage it.”

In closing, Judge Orenstein had these words of wisdom, “In particular, by waiting too long to weigh in on the constitutionality of warrantless access to newly created kinds of information, the judiciary risk the error of transforming from mere assertion to self-fulfilling prophecy the government’s contention that people categorically lack any reasonable expectation of privacy in such information.”

I’m grateful for the Judge’s ruling. Electronic tagging and tracking is here to stay. It will take many people and some of those in powerful positions to protect privacy and to help hold off the risk of geoslavery.

Like this? Check out these other posts:

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  • Microsoft’s Davis on Privacy: Your Digital Life Data is Bankable Currency
  • ACLU Report: Spying on Free Speech Nearly At Cold War Level
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  • Google Super Spy Eye-in-the-Sky: Total Information Awareness
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  • Privacy Choices: Who’s Watching You and Tracking Your Clicks?

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.