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GPS Finds You. How Do You Find That?

gps sprint robust find you threatI came across this picture as part of an advertisement for Sprint mobile communications technology. “GPS so robust you’ll swear things almost find you”, the ad promises. That sounds powerful, and useful. Stop to think, though – do you really need robust GPS?

GPS stands for Global Positioning System. GPS networks use satellites orbiting planet Earth to locate GPS devices to with great precision. That’s a boon to mapmakers, archaeologists, and people who work in remote locations that require good navigation without roadmarks.

However, an increasing number of people are getting GPS devices in order to do things that they have always been able to do just fine without the help of satellites overhead. People use GPS to locate the nearest pharmacy, when they might look at a phone book, or to get driving directions, when they might just look at a road map.

There’s nothing wrong with using GPS technology to accomplish these tasks, but there might be an unanticipated cost. With GPS becoming ubiquitous, we just might lose the ability to get lost.

Getting lost is nice in an aesthetic sense, because it often results in the discovery of things we never intended to find. The ability to get lost is also fundamental to our liberty. When you’re lost, after all, no one knows where you are. We are guaranteed against unreasonable search and seizure of our papers and our “persons”. Surely, the people who voted on the Bill of Rights never considered the possibility that people could be searched for and found wherever they are, but they surely did consider the ability of agents of the government to spy on citizens, following them wherever they go, looking for bits of information that could be used to blackmail or otherwise control their targets.

GPS provides the ability to track people with a thoroughness that is unprecedented. With GPS, you don’t have to swear that things almost find you. They do. GPS is a two way system. In order for a GPS system to work, it has to feed its parent system information about where you are. The system tracks you, following you wherever you go. GPS thus creates the potential for a record of your movements throughout the day, day after day.

Companies like Sprint can promise privacy safeguards, but in the current climate of Homeland Insecurity, those safeguards don’t count for much. Under George W. Bush, the government has been assembling databases from commercial databases including information about health records, financial activity, and private communications. The government has issued secret subpoenas to communications companies like Sprint, only revealed later through leaks or lawsuits, pressuring companies to hand over electronic records of their customers’ activities, in violation of privacy guarantees the companies made to their customers.

It wasn’t known criminals or terrorists who were tracked. Ordinary American citizens were spied upon. There is no technical reason that GPS information about citizens’ movements could not be added to the government databases.

If Americans find themselves dependent on GPS technology, they will stand in danger of losing their liberty.

9 comments to GPS Finds You. How Do You Find That?

  • John Stracke

    The positive side of Sprint’s GPS is that their E911 works much better than AT&T’s. Back when the cellphone carriers had to make their phones send actual positions to 911 centers, the CDMA carriers (Sprint and Verizon) decided to integrate GPS into their handsets, while the GSM-based carriers (AT&T and T-Mobile) chose to do triangulation in the towers instead. This works OK when you’re in range of at least three towers, but it’s virtually useless otherwise.

  • Iroquois

    I know of one local non-profit that provides employees with GPS equipped cellphones, then uses it to track their whereabouts at work.

  • Luke

    Cell phones themselves ping cell towers continually to establish position; and the record of locations thus created has been used to track alleged criminals, and to locate people trapped in snowdrifts, and rescue others.
    The technology is also being used right now to activate cell phone speakers remotely, even when the phone is OFF, to overhear conversations; basically making any cell phone into a user carried bugging device.
    One possible answer is to give up your cell phone.
    Another possible answer is to, of course, strengthen protections against any intrusion. But again, information is infinite, and can escape or be captured through the tiniest of “holes”.
    Another possibility is to get used to the lack of privacy now, because it is decreasing. If I ever run for office, I would disclose absolutely everything I have ever done on the first day; and say “deal with it”.

  • In fact, the government has technology that can activate cell phones as microphones for its surveillance, even if the cell phones are turned off. It sounds science fiction weird, but it’s true.

  • Jason

    The author of this article doesn’t understand how GPS works. It is a one way system. Most A-GPS systems also don’t allow for such kinds of tracking either. I should know, as a civil engineer, it was a part of my academic studies. Whats more, comment # 4 above is also incorrect. once a cell phone is turned off, it can’t be remotely turned on, or used as a listening device. Though the possibility of future application of such designs is not impossible, it is also not very likely atleast for the next 15 years, and possibly never. Now there are GPS enabled phones that relay the GPS position data back through the cell network, such as post #2 above mentioned, but that relay of info is not done through the GPS hardware, but through the phone hardware, and yes, there is a distinct difference.

  • Jim

    Just because you’ve “done academic studies” doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about regarding cell phones as microphones. Check here, Jason. Then, if you have any specific countervailing information besides your protestation, please direct us to it.

  • Iroquois

    How long ago did you study, Jason? Back when I took electronic theory in 1979, we understood that two years was a long time in the industry and three years was a complete revolution.

    What did I study? Some tube theory, a lot of transistor theory, and something new called a chip. (Yes, I still know how to chase a signal through a series of gates with an oscilloscope.)

    It’s impossible to keep up with all the new technology, even when you’re working in the field.

  • Jason

    Hello Jim,
    I apologize if I gave you the impression that my academic studies included cell phone technology. Thank you for providing the links you had. Though after reading the source article, I’m not convinced (mainly due to the reporters errors in comprehension in atleast one of his sources) I do admit that there may be such a mechanism currently to turn a cell phone on and activate the mic remotely. It’s my opinion that this is not the case, but only an opinion based on my knowledge of cell hardware. Don’t take that to mean that I am posting this as fact. I was posting as fact on this before, but since your post, have degraded it to an opinion. However my comments on GPS are fact, and I understand you didn’t refer to that.

    To Iroquois
    I wasn’t referring to our current state of technology, but our politics regarding privacy, and products designed to protect such privacy. I personally don’t believe that any phone is currently hacked in the way described here, because any company that made such a product, and such a security flaw was reported on, would probably go out of business.

  • Kevin

    I’d just like to correct the record: GPS is a one-way system. It cannot be used to track you. There are alternatives based on triangulation of cell-phone towers, but that’s fake GPS. Real GPS (tomtom, magellan, garmin etc) uses military satellites, and they do not have the signal capacity to get a communicate with satellites in orbit. You need to consider how much ambient radiation is being tossed around all day long on earth’s surface, and for a satellite discern and track hundreds of thousands of weak signals in that mess is silly. Take a look at a satellite phone. Notice the big antenna. Notice there is no big antenna on your GPS. Guess why? One-way system.

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