Article Six of the Constitution's Bill of Rights guarantees freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” This simple clause is an obstacle for those who employ legal location-based services and a rationale for conviction of those engaged in illegal surveillance. Location-based services, or “LBS,” use embedded computer chips to track and transmit location and other data wirelessly by radio and Internet. Such chips are found in a dizzying variety of products including cell phones, food packages, and tattoo-like skin decals. Increasingly, LBS sensors send medical and environmental data such as heart rate, humidity and temperature.
Under Your Skin
Now, LBS under-the-skin chips are not only implanted on pets; the transmitters are also inserted under human skin. See “Opening the Way for New Applications” in the March 2012 issue of the International Electrotechnical Commission. Mexicans worried about being kidnapped are purchasing LBS skin implants. In the United States, LBS surveillance is used by many government departments, notably the departments of State and Homeland Security, by municipal and state police departments, private security firms, corporations, and, yes, also criminals.
Pros and Cons: Pros
LBS have proven critical for catching criminals and even preventing crime. Tracking the stolen car may lead to the thief. Tracking the cardiac patient ensures fast medical attention. Society benefits with vehicular traffic monitoring and control. People opting in for LBS can see their position on a street map or find a restaurant. Calls to 911 allow many emergency services to send aid even if the caller is unable to say his location. The prosecution of a murderer is bolstered by LBS time-stamped evidence that place him with his victim. If the victim also has an LBS device, the association in time and place may be conclusive. In the same way, the victim of a crime such as kidnapping, is more easily found.
Pros and Cons: Cons
Location-based services used unethically or illegally invade personal privacy and violate the spirit and letter of the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court interprets the amendment to mean that a person has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.” LBS are a dictator's dream come true.
Intrusive advertising is targeted using tracking data obtained from a person's visits to stores. LBS systems produce voluminous customer behavior data. When advertising becomes spam, it becomes illegal and those advertisers, criminals. Further along this scale, thieves can use illegally placed trackers to know when someone is not at home.
Practically speaking, protecting the rights guaranteed by the Constitution is difficult when devices that violate those rights become so widely distributed. Here is a short list of objects with LBS chips:
Delivery service parcels
Employee monitoring devices implanted in uniforms and equipment
ID cards including passports, employee cards, and retail discount cards
Laptops and netbooks
Monitors for babies, children and the elderly
Personnel and object tracking devices for yards, hospitals, warehouses, and factories
Security alarms for cars, homes, and persons
The ubiquitousness of LBS systems is doubtlessly keeping us safer. But, unethical or criminal organizations use these same systems. The police officer equipped with LBS may vacillate between being an enforcer of the law and one who breaks the law. As you read this, LBS is no longer just a basis for discussion in academia and courtrooms; it is a real, if intangible, presence tracking us and our possessions in our neighborhoods, vehicles, and persons -- for good and for ill.
Byline: Aaron Gormley takes digital crime incredibly seriously, which is why he writes this article on behalf of Forths Forensic Accountants.