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Cell Phone Location Tracking

According to the Wall St. Journal, “more than 25,000 adults in the U.S. are victims of GPS stalking annually, including by cellphone.”  The article notes that a cell phone account holder can track everyone on the account.  Users are notified by text message but can’t stop it.

This tracking policy might work well with a pesky teenager, but what about cases of domestic violence?

The article provides a harrowing story:

One morning last summer, Glenn Helwig threw his then-wife to the floor of their bedroom in Corpus Christi, Texas, she alleged in police reports. She packed her 1995 Hyundai and drove to a friend’s home, she recalled recently. She didn’t expect him to find her.

The day after she arrived, she says, her husband “all of a sudden showed up.” According to police reports, he barged in and knocked her to the floor, then took off with her car.

The police say in a report that Mr. Helwig found his wife using a service offered by his cellular carrier, which enabled him to follow her movements through the global-positioning-system chip contained in her cellphone.

Mr. Helwig, in an interview, acknowledged using the service to track his wife on some occasions. He says he signed up for the tracking service last year. “AT&T had this little deal where you could find your family member through her cellphone,” he says. But he didn’t use it to find his wife that day, he says. Mr. Helwig, who is awaiting trial on related assault charges, declined to comment further about the matter. He has pleaded not guilty.

Although Helwig’s wife was notified by text message, she couldn’t stop the tracking unless she turned off her phone.  The WSJ article describes a few other cases:

In Arizona this year, Andre Leteve used the GPS in his wife’s cellphone to stalk her, according to his wife’s lawyer, Robert Jensen, before allegedly murdering their two children and shooting himself. Mr. Jensen says Mr. Leteve’s wife, Laurie Leteve, didn’t know she was being tracked until she looked at one of the family’s monthly cellphone bills, more than 30 days after the tracking began. Mr. Leteve, a real-estate agent, is expected to recover. He has pleaded not guilty to murder charges, and is awaiting trial. The law firm representing him declined to comment.

In a suspected murder-suicide last year near Seattle, a mechanic named James Harrison allegedly tracked his wife’s cellphone to a store. After he found her there with another man, he shot to death his five children and himself, according to the Pierce County Sheriff’s Office.

If the phone tracking can be readily turned off by a user, then it might not be effective in locating lost or kidnapped children — a very beneficial use.  On the other hand, if it can’t be turned off by a user, it can be used by stalking spouses.  I think the answer is to allow a user to turn it off — and to keep it turned off as a default.  If the user hasn’t turned it on and there’s an emergency, then the tracking can be turned on by a person getting court authorization.  This would prevent stalkers from using the service but would allow for legitimate uses.

Originally Posted at Concurring Opinions

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This post was authored by Professor Daniel J. Solove, who through TeachPrivacy develops computer-based privacy training, data security training, HIPAA training, and many other forms of awareness training on privacy and security topics. Professor Solove also posts at his blog at LinkedIn. His blog has more than 1 million followers.

Professor Solove is the organizer, along with Paul Schwartz, of the Privacy + Security Forum and International Privacy + Security Forum, annual events designed for seasoned professionals.

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