Geo-location is a subset of the field of data mining. Just as data mining techniques can look at transaction data to build a profile (e.g. phone call records or credit card purchases) the same techniques can take data about where a person is geographically located and use that to develop a pattern of behavior for an individual. Issues relating to geo-location are particularly “hot” right now for three reasons:
First, a recent expose by Zeit and The New York Times demonstrated just how powerful geo-location technology can be. As the Times reported in It’s Tracking Your Every Move and You May Not Even Know your cellphone is on all the time and broadcasts a signal so that the cell towers can locate the phone and route calls to you. The phone company keeps the records of that location data – and sometimes is required to give it to the police. Using the geo-location tags from your cell phone, police can track your every trip over extended periods of time.
Zeit went even further. With the permission of Malte Spitz, a Green party politician in Germany, they downloaded the geo-location tags for Spitz’s cell phone for 6 months, and then created an interactive map that allows the average user to see, in detail, exactly where Spitz was (and by inference demonstrating what the government can do with the data when it has access to it as well). The results, published as Betrayed By Our Own Data, are striking.
Another recent development has been the apparent expansion of the use of geo-location techniques by the US government. Precisely how those techniques are used (and whether they are used at all) is cloaked in secrecy. But some speculate that the government is doing large-scale geo-location tracking covertly. Geo-location data mining may be the future.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Supreme Court is set to decide a geo-location case in 2012. The case is United States v. Jones, and the Court will decide whether or not geo-location requires a warrant. Whichever way it goes, this case will be a seminal case for privacy, surveillance and data mining.