Geolocation services are one of the most handy and yet one of the most controversial aspects of the Internet. It can be a great help for some to pull up a map and be able to find out exactly where you are. It also raises some serious privacy issues since you can be tracked wherever you go and it may be required to leave on for an app to function properly. So how exactly is your location tracked and is it worth it?

Start with your IP Address

It starts with your IP address. IP addresses are specific to a location. The block of IP addresses available for York, Pennsylvania will be different to the block of IP addresses for Lancaster, Harrisburg or Baltimore. This scheme predates geolocation software but it was the introduction of this software that allowed for a location to be determined.

You have probably hit the acquire location option on Google Maps, in Google Earth or any other service that uses geolocation at some point. It is of course not always accurate but it is reasonably close, usually within a hundred yards or so which is close enough usually for what you need. Each user is given BSSID information (essentially the MAC address for wireless access points) when they connect wirelessly even if wi-fi and geolocation services are turned off. A phone is constantly giving information to a company like Google from wireless access points or cell phone towers.

There is more that goes into this than just IP addresses. Some of the services may be able to zero in on your home but marking where your IP address shows up. This may not lead to your exact home but it can lead to your neighborhood. Your ISP may also contribute some information that can help narrow down an exact location. They know your IP address and also have your personal information on file.

Plenty of good reasons for this service

Being able to locate someone is not necessarily a bad thing. Geolocation services were not designed to be harmful. These services help to avert phishing attacks by determining a user’s location and helping to block users outside of their base reducing the chance of data breaches.

Law enforcement also finds geolocation useful. They can track where financial transactions begin or end, it can help monitor potential terrorist or criminal activities and it can help to prevent illegal trade with sanctioned nations. It can also be used to help prevent fraud by comparing the IP address where the entry is made with where the order is to be sent so an order placed in Russia but being sent to Portland, Oregon will be flagged. Of course it also means that a potential criminal or a missing person can be tracked if they have their phone on them (but then you’ve probably seen that on TV). Much of it is also implemented into the E911 system which allows first responders are able to respond much more quickly and efficiently in a situation when seconds can matter.

For you there are practical reasons as well. You’ve probably gotten lost and being able to hit that button and find out exactly where you are has been a godsend. You are lost no more and can even get directions directly to where you are heading.

Plenty of bad too

It is also used by many websites for good and for bad. Of course it is nice for them to know where their traffic is coming from. A small local business will want to know if their traffic is coming from their targeted area or if it is coming from across the globe. It also allows some websites to target what you see, whether it is news or taking you to where a local location of that store automatically.

Of course there is also the opportunity for abuse. Abusive partners can use it to track someone via a stalking app or other technology. The same can be said for criminals looking to kidnap someone or even worse. Law enforcement can use it to track people when it is not necessary or legal (see below). Companies can abuse it by keeping your information and then selling it. Being able to track where you go and what businesses you potentially do business with can be valuable information. An attempt to regulate this was introduced by Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) in 2011 (along with Senator Ron Wyden [D-Oregon]) which was opposed by the Obama Administration and again in 2017 when it never left committee.

Legal precedents being established

In the landmark U.S. v. Jones the defendant Antoine Jones was suspected of drug trafficking in 2005. The authorities wanted to track the defendant and installed a GPS device placed on their vehicle illegally and tracked Jones’ movements for a month before arresting him. The government argued that Jones’ movement on public roads was public information and not protected under the 14th Amendment. A previous case was cited revolving around the police tracking a suspect using their beeper in the 1980s.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that this was a violation of the 14th Amendment relating to unlawful search and seizure but they were split on why. The majority ruled that the installation of the tracker was illegal in an opinion authored by Antonin Scalia. The argument that tracking a beeper was the same was dismissed since tracking the device still required law enforcement to keep close to the suspect rather than sitting back and just hitting a button to tell them where the vehicle was.

The issue of warrantless GPS surveillance was brought up in a concurring opinion authored by Sonia Sotomayor and in another concurring opinion authored by Samuel Alito noted that GPS monitoring impinges on expectations of privacy. In 2013 the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld that a warrant was indeed needed to track someone using GPS much to the chagrin of then-FBI Director Robert Mueller who believed that the Jones decision limited the bureau’s surveillance capabilities. Despite the victory in the Supreme Court the defendant was retried but accepted a plea deal.

Geolocation services are not going away but with so much of it potentially available to the public what becomes of that data has many Americans concerned. It has many positive applications but it can also be used for evil, both by evil people and by the people who are charged with protecting us from them. Legal precedents are being set and will continue to be set to determine how far individuals, companies and the government can go to use this information.

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