At this point, nobody’s surprised to hear that US authorities can track mobile phones. But what you might not realise is just how easy and how incredibly cheap it is.
On Thursday, a pair of privacy researchers published a paper in the Yale Law Journal that breaks the cost of surveillance out into handy detail. This way, it’s easy to comprehend the massive rift in the cost of old fashioned surveillance — think: windowless van parked across the street from your house — and the cost of tech-enabled surveillance like mobile phone tracking. While it can cost up to $US275 for a “covert car pursuit”, it costs as little as $US0.04 an hour using mobile phone tracking to accomplish the same goal. And it actually gets cheaper the longer they track someone.
As Forbes‘s Andy Greenberg points out, this adds new context to the debate over the constitutionality of mobile phone tracking. It calls to mind the landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling in US vs Jones that declared warrantless tracking of car GPS systems to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. That decision said that GPS tracking represented a fundamentally different kind of surveillance than traditional methods since police could track a large number of people for relatively few resources. Why not just track everyone?
Well, that’s the dark future we’re trying to avoid, though some would argue it’s already upon us. Despite the Supreme Court ruling on GPS tracking in cars, a federal court declared last year that warrantless mobile phone tracking are legal, though that debate is bound to continue. Then there’s the NSA which is already tracking your every move, though it remains to be seen if they’ll be allowed to keep that up. But in the meantime, the cops will continue to track suspects’ mobile phones for practically nothing. There are probably some non-suspects in the mix too, because for $US0.04 an hour, why the heck not? [Yale Law Journal via Forbes]