In August of 2010, the Wall Street Journal reported that global-positioning-system (GPS) technology offered by cellular carriers is being used by stalkers. Although the technology is intended to rescue lost drivers, locate kidnap victims and enable other noble endeavors, it has had the unintended consequence of allowing stalkers to more easily track their victims. According to the article, cellular GPS technology has become the easiest, and possibly the most common, way for stalkers to locate their targets.
Certain carriers, such as AT&T, offered deals to consumers allowing them to “sign up” for these tracking services. However, although the carrier alerts phone users when tracking functions are activated, such users do not have the right to refuse to be tracked by the account holder. Their only option to avoid detection is to turn off their phone.
Carriers will also agree to deactivate GPS tracking functions if requested to do so by law enforcement officials. As of August 2010, no carriers had been asked to alter their GPS programs.
According to the article, the ease of access to GPS tracking capabilities is, in part, an unintended consequence of federal regulations that require the installation of GPS chips into cellular phones. The intent of these regulations was to allow easier access to emergency services, and the regulations have been largely successful in this area.
Unfortunately, GPS capabilities have also had negative consequences, as tech companies have found other uses for tracking data. For instance, software manufacturers have developed software that can be surreptitiously loaded on someone else’s cellular phone and used to track that person’s movements through the already-existing GPS technology. This allows any third party (i.e. someone other than the cellular carrier) to track someone else’s location. This unintended usage has proven especially problematic for victims of domestic violence, and has even driven certain domestic violence shelters to dismantle the phones of the victims who they house. These systems have also been abused by law enforcement officers who have reportedly used location data for personal reasons. They are able to do so because federal law allows carriers to turn such data over in emergencies without subpoenas, but carriers are unable to verify whether an emergency situation truly exists.