Is Everything Tracking You?

Category: Privacy

Richard Dabate might have gotten away with murder if not for his wife’s Fitbit exercise tracker. He told police that a tall, obese man who sounded like Vin Diesel invaded their home and shot his wife, Connie, in the head with a .357 Magnum pistol that Dabate had purchased months earlier. But Connie’s Fitbit tracker revealed that she had been walking hours after the time of her murder as described by her husband. This begs the question... what other devices may be tracking where you go, and what you do? Read on...

You've Got Electronic Footprints

Police also examined Dabate’s home computers, security system, cell phones, text messages going back a year, and social media postings. They revealed that Dabate had acquired a “girlfriend” a year ago and had texted to Connie, “I want a divorce.” Credit card records revealed charges at a strip club and a nearby motel. Combined with the Fitbit evidence, that was enough to charge Dabate with murder and lying to investigators.

"It (Fitbit) is an electronic footprint that tracks your movements," Stedman said. "It is a great tool for investigators to use. We can also get the information much faster than some other types of evidence such as DNA tests."

It may seem like every digital amenity we use is keeping track of us in ways that can be used to target us with ads or convict us of crimes. Some things, like Fitbit and smartphones with GPS enabled, definitely do track us. But others do not, despite concerns that they might.

electronic footprints and tracking

If you bought a car within the past ten years, it probably includes a black box called an “event data recorder.” Rumors abound that an EDR records every event from the moment the engine is started until it’s shut off, preserving a turn-by-turn, stop by stop record of everywhere you drive, as well as how you drive. But that isn’t true.

An EDR records data in a continuous loop, overwriting previous data with new data. In the event of a crash, the EDR saves up to five seconds worth of data immediately before, during, and after the crash. Let me repeat: at most, an EDR saves only five seconds worth of data about your driving habits. Even so, a lot of people would like to get access to that EDR data: police, insurance companies, personal injury lawyers, and auto makers. State laws governing who can access EDR data and under what circumstances can be found at the National Council of State Legislatures.

Other Types of Car Tracking

Cars equipped with OnStar may be collecting certain types of driving behavior. The OnStar Smart Driver system can capture hard braking events, hard acceleration events, time spent idle, speeds over 80 miles per hour, when a trip occurs and the number of miles driven. But this requires opt-in from the customer, and OnStar's privacy policy says they won't share this data without your consent.

If you have an EZ-Pass or similar tag in your car that allows you to zip through toll plazas, your location can obviously be tracked as you pass through the tool booth. But it's been discovered that EZ-Pass tag readers are not just in toll plazas. They are sometimes located in urban areas, and along highways. Authorities in New York City say they are used to study traffic patterns, but we don't have much information about how pervasive this tracking is, and who may have access to the data. If you have one of these tags in your car, you can assume that at least some of your driving (and how fast you drive) could be tracked and/or recorded. Your best defense is to keep the tag in the foil read prevention bag, and take it out only when paying a toll. But that would be inconvenient and possibly dangerous for the driver.

Shoud You Worry About RFID, NFC, and GPS?

RFID (radio-frequency identification) and NFC (near-field communications) have also been credited with more tracking powers than they actually possess. Both technologies are quite limited in range; a few yards for RFID and a few inches for NFC.

RFID chips are used mainly to thwart shoplifters, and in badges to control access to buildings and sensitive areas within them. Some schools require students to wear RFID badges on buses and in school. Certainly, schools have a duty to keep careful track of students while they are in school. But the sensors that detect RFID don’t follow any students home. Tracking is limited to times and places where a school is responsible for a student’s safety.

NFC chips are most likely to be found in credit or debit cards. They provide the convenience of simply waving your card at a point-of-sale terminal instead of figuring out which side of the card should be swiped or inserted into a card reader. Their very limited range is sufficient for this purpose and virtually no other.

But any personal device (smartphone, smartwatch, tablet, fitness band, portable navigation device, etc.) that uses the GPS system DOES expose its carrier to the possibility of being tracked. When it comes to GPS services, my motto is, “If you’re not using it, turn it off!”

Other Tracking Technologies

Video cameras seem to be everywhere now. Some systems in large public venues even have the ability to do facial recognition as people enter. Ostensibly, this is to flag known terrorists and other bad guys who might pose a threat to the event. Lots of business owners have cameras inside and outside their stores for security. In some cities, the police use cameras to detect or deter criminal activity. If you're out in public, you should assume there's a camera somewhere.

But what about microphones? Gunfire detectors are proliferating in urban areas, detecting the sound of gunshots and estimating their locations for police. Microphones are involved, obviously. Some people wonder if these mics can also record conversations within their range. They probably could, but gunfire detectors are designed to filter out conversations, traffic noise, and other irrelevant sounds. They are listening only for the characteristic sound of a gunshot.

And just yesterday, I read an article about how ultrasound signals can be used to track not only the location of a person, but also what you watch on TV, and what you do on your mobile phone. Stores, billboards, websites, and TV commercials can send out ultrasonic beacons, which can be picked up by apps on your phone. Your best defense here is to pay attention to the permissions requested when you add new apps to your smartphone. If an app asks for permission to use the microphone, and you can't see any good reason for that, don't install the app.

Are you concerned about the privacy implications of pervasive tracking? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

 
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Most recent comments on "Is Everything Tracking You?"

Posted by:

Stuart Berg
05 May 2017

Typo at "Shoud You Worry About RFID, NFC, and GPS?".


Posted by:

Marilyn Gross
05 May 2017

Find it almost hilarious that simultaneous with my eating a food product, repeatedly, a commercial for that item appears on TV screen that I am watching.Happens to daughter in same household.


Posted by:

Brian
05 May 2017

It's the world we live in now. Time to get used to it and get over it. We need camera in all major cities on all major street corners to deter crime. RFID is a great idea to keep tabs on who should be here and not there. No big deal as I see it. We need a safer environment, we also need more legal gun owners and less gun laws.


Posted by:

MikieB
05 May 2017

You should mention that there is nothing you can do that isn't on camera. Shades of "1984".


Posted by:

William Conroy
05 May 2017

@Brian....."He who gives up freedom for security neither deserves nor will get either".


Posted by:

Mac 'n' Cheese
05 May 2017

William, you wrote in response to Brian's comment, "He who gives up freedom for security neither deserves nor will get either."

But could it also be true that he who does not give up some freedom may find himself with freedom but no security us use it"?

I have to balance the security to safely go outside my home with the realization that neither the criminal nor I are free to roam unnoticed and undetected.

I don't see it as black and white. As we know from the movie, there are many shades of gray.


Posted by:

bobdeloyd
05 May 2017

I can understand the technology if you are in public, but not in the privacy of your own home.
Funny, I can't imagine someone wanting to look at my old face reading stuff on my laptop, but I read somewhere someone could actually turn the camera on without you knowing it. I cover mine with a piece of electrical tape :O


Posted by:

J
05 May 2017

Brian, there are cameras everywhere in Chicago...hasn't deterred crime there yet!


Posted by:

Paul Memoli
05 May 2017

You forgot to mention supermarket "loyalty cards". You use these to obtain a discount, but a record is kept of all your purchases. Buy cigarettes, eat a lot of fatty foods, love the bloodiest red meat... well when you have a heart attack these shopping choices can and eventually will be used against you. After all, why should insurance companies cover your butt for a self-inflicted wound?


Posted by:

NB
05 May 2017

Uh, that would be 50 shades of Grey, as in the name, not gray, as in the color.


Posted by:

Mott Given
06 May 2017

There is an excellent bibliography with links to additional info on computer privacy issues prepared by the Upper Arlington Public Library at: https://www.ualibrary.org/referencesrvc/guides/online-privacy

The most useful link posted on that page is the one to "San Jose Public Library - Virtual Privacy Lab" which is a complete, free online course in computer privacy. It is the best resource of its type on the internet.


Posted by:

kam
06 May 2017

NB - It's way off topic so I shouldn't bother, but your correction of 'mac n cheese' seems spurious. Here in the UK (where the book to which they refer was written), there is no 'gray' colour; the name and the colour are both 'grey' - so...you are both right and wrong.


Posted by:

Frederick W. Collins
06 May 2017

The advice that only 5 seconds info are tracked is probably outdated already. Quite apart from which it may be proven inaccurate by the next set of leaks.


Posted by:

James
06 May 2017

Bob= what's a good system to speed up my pc?


Posted by:

James
06 May 2017

Bob= what's a good system to speed up my pc?


Posted by:

Dave
06 May 2017

Mott Given. 404 Not Found. Copied & pasted


Posted by:

Bruce Thompson
06 May 2017

I am surprised you did not mention Google Maps. Google Maps tracks my daily activity. Every week, Google sends me an email summarizing my movement annotating the place and time of every movement on a map, day by day.


Posted by:

RandiO
07 May 2017

Oh, Humanity! It is still growing.
Humans have been killing each other for many a millennia but texting to ask for a divorce before doing so is a new one on me!


Posted by:

Jimno
08 May 2017

Is Everything Tracking You? Another great, informative, educational article.
Jim


Posted by:

Hill
11 May 2017

I bought a tin-foil suit on Ebay -I'm safe.


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