Monday, May 9, 2011

Are the Feds Really Tracking My Smartphone?

Well, Apple seems to have another worm. Not the annoying kind that causes us to use profanity with an electronic device, but the kind that is keeping Apple's public relations department and lawyers up at night. That snoopy news media has discovered something that is not necessarily news, but that is most certainly newsworthy, and it is getting a lot of coverage and lawsuits, although the Supreme Court refused to take the case. People are discovering that the device that links them to the world, also links the world to us.
It is true--your iPhone, or any smart phone, can be tracked to your exact location, but this is nothing new. We have found this Apple iPhone geo-tracking debate interesting and amusing. One of the hats we wear at Computer PRO is micro-forensics, a really cool thing that people love in TV shows such as CSI, but apparently hate in the real world. Micro-Forensics, put very simply, is using ultra-cerebral and super sneaky high technology to track criminal movement and computer data. We have had the opportunity to attend some very interesting seminars in Micro-Forensics, where the FBI and Homeland Security report on specific case studies, and give fascinating stories of how they used the superior technology of the US government to nab some really bad guys. The stories were fascinating, except maybe when the young FBI agent told of being on the team that was assigned, begrudgingly, to find the kid who hacked into Sarah Palin's email. There are very strict privacy guards in place for Micro-Forensic professionals, for example, you need a court order to retrieve data from an ISP (Internet Service Provider) so that you can track what someone has been researching on the Internet. So, if someone comes to us wanting to see what their wife has been doing online, or where her iPhone has been, they are out of luck. On the other hand, if you are worried about what Google is keeping about you on your Internet searches, it might be particularly calming to learn that only a judge can grant someone access to their Internet habits (although anyone can view a limited and deletable version in the history of any computer) If you are worried about your iPhone, be aware that ANY GPS enabled device can be tracked, whether it is a Garmin, a Tom Tom, or any phone with navigation in it. We were shown one case study where the FBI was tracking drug runners who were using maritime GPS to travel by boat at night from Florida to Cuba to run drugs. They could see the exact path they were taking, and even discovered an island they were using to refuel by their GPS system, and see where exactly they were docking in Cuba. The FBI was able to use this information to guide the Coast Guard to tell them exactly where and what time to drop by to intercept and shut down this drug ring. Another example is, if a bad guy murders someone and he happens to have GPS navigation on his phone (or GPS navigation in his car), this could be used to track his exact movements, not only to place him at the scene of the crime, but to track his movements prior to it. If a terrorist comes to the US on a student visa and buys a GPS unit, most often the FIRST place he turns it on is when he gets home and gets it out of the box. This first "ping" is often very important information to have. Many times where a bad guy lives, and who he visits are easily found this way. Aren't you glad the FBI can do this? When Osama bin Laden was killed last week, computers, hard drives, and cell phones were found. There is very important "chain of evidence" documentation that begins from the moment the hardware and data are siezed, how it is stored under strict lock-and-key, and who has access to the data at all times. If this is not carefully and completely documented, it won't be admissible in court. Right now, they are likely combing through the hard-drives with the best FBI forensic agents we have, but I suspect the cell phones may be the most important evidence they have. From those cell phones, the movement (times and locations)of the terrorists can be tracked-- and if they have GPS, the EXACT addresses or coordinates can be tracked of where these cell phones have been and exactly WHEN they were there. So this is not new technology in the least, but law-abiding citizens have nothing to worry about. these types of investigations are pricey, and very hard to do because of the court orders that are required to view this information. If you don't want to be tracked, you can just turn off the GPS, although if the phone is turned on, it will still ping on cell phone towers which give a position within 300 yards. However, if you want to be found if you ever disappear, turn it on--it could save your life if you are laying in a ditch somewhere.
I, for one, am VERY glad my smart phone can track me in case I need help. Big Brother is way too busy looking at the abundance of terrorists and child porn perps to worry about how many times I went to Wal Mart last week.

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