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Location Tracking Can Go Very Bad, Very Fast

Location tracking using cell phones and other electronic devices has become a common law enforcement technique. For most Americans, this causes very little concern. The mindset tends to be “if I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t have anything to worry about.” But in truth, police location tracking can go very bad, very fast.

The case of Lisa Roberts clearly demonstrates how location tracking can wreck an innocent person’s life.

In 2002, police arrested Roberts after somebody strangled her ex-lover. According to an article published in the Economist, prosecutors told Roberts’ attorney police had “pinpointed” her location in a park shortly before the victim’s naked and sexually assaulted corpse was found there. Facing 25 years to life in prison, Roberts accepted a plea deal for 15 years.

But Roberts was not guilty of the crime. As the Economist put it:

“The high-tech evidence against her was bunk. Routinely collected tower data can place a mobile phone in a broad area, but it cannot ‘pinpoint’ it. That would require a special three-tower ‘triangulation,’ which cannot reveal past locations. It took a decade for Ms. Roberts’s guilty plea to be thrown out. On May 28th she left prison, her criminal record clean, after nearly 12 years in custody.”

Law enforcement agencies utilize location tracking in a staggering number of cases. In 2013, law enforcement served 37,839 subpoenas, warrants, and court orders for location data to AT&T alone. That represents just the tip of the iceberg. Evolving technology allows police to gather location data without a warrant through stingrays and license plate tracking.

The problem is this location information isn’t always accurate. According to an expert quoted in the Economist, “two calls dialed consecutively from the same spot may connect to two different towers: one close by, the other many miles away.”

“Which tower a phone connects with depends on such factors as how thick the nearby foliage and walls are, the size of nearby cars and bodies of water, and how well the handset is working. None of this information is usually recorded. Without it, much of the tower evidence presented in court is useless, writes Larry Daniel of Guardian Digital Forensics in a forthcoming book on the subject. Daniel has found errors in nearly half of the 240 consulting jobs he has done for prosecutors and defense lawyers.”

Technology that allows police to track locations without going through communications companies like AT&T or Verizon prove equally problematic. Stingray devices force every phone in the vicinity to connect to it. This could easily lead to an innocent person inadvertently being connected to criminal activity. And just because an automatic license plate reader records your car in a given area doesn’t mean you were in it. Without strict limits on their use, police can easily utilize stingrays and ALPRs to conduct high-tech fishing expeditions – sometimes with disastrous results for innocent people.

While the masses rest comfortably under the illusion tracking doesn’t matter because, “I don’t have anything to hide,” the government works tirelessly to create massive databases used to track the movement of everyday Americans.

This clearly demonstrates the need for limits on law enforcement’s ability to obtain location data, whether from third party communication companies, technology that captures information in real time, or from databases created by the federal government.

Click HERE for more information on how to protect the privacy of your location data.