Smartphones (Location Services)

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My location 2.jpg
Smartphone screen with user's location
Issue Geolocation disclosure via Location Services software
Value Privacy, Disclosure, Society
Intent Positive and malicious
Stakeholders Various
Legal Legality depends on intent
Social Applications are possible
have been around since the early 1990s, but it was not until the end of the decade that manufacturers began fabricating these devices with global positioning system (GPS) functionality.[1] Whereas a mobile phone is a portable device that can make and receive calls over a radio frequency (assuming that the user is within the physical limits of the carrier’s service area), a smartphone extends the capabilities of a standard mobile phone by permitting an operating system (OS) to be installed on the handset.[2][3] The distinction between a mobile phone and smartphone may seem incidental, but it is important when it comes to accurately interpreting their features. Over the years the operating system software on smartphones have become quite elaborate and feature-rich. The integration of a high performance central processing unit (CPU), graphics engine, and extremely high pixel density touchscreen display affords customers the ability to do more than ever before with this constantly evolving mobile technology. It is this nexus of software, hardware, and expanding creative possibilities that have precipitated the deluge of applications (or “apps”) and accessories for these devices. As the active user base becomes more populated, especially with first-time smartphone users, the need for clear policies, transparent user agreements, and intuitive user interfaces concurrently rises. Besides the obvious priorities among the companies in this competitive market, such as mitigating switching costs and creating a pleasing overall customer experience, new ethical responsibilities have emerged for their consideration. Arguably, one of the most pressing of these issues is related to the embedded GPS technology, now commonplace in these devices, that hosts a variety of challenging ethical issues as the market for them becomes increasingly saturated.

Note: unless otherwise indicated, use of the term “devices” shall represent smartphones in the general sense throughout the following selection.

Background and History of the Technology

Benefon's Esc! GPS System

The first decidedly full-featured GPS enabled smartphone appeared in 1999. It was called the Esc! and was originally produced by a company called Benefon.[4] After a series of mergers and acquisitions, the corporation now representing this early entry into the smartphone market is called Twig Com out of Salo, Finland. To this day they remain specialists in the mobile telecommunications industry and are known for personal safety and GPS products developed specifically for worker protection, telecare, and asset tracking applications.[5] Naturally, as the production of the Esc! occurred in Europe, a vast majority of the manufactured devices were sold and distributed there, with only a small fraction of them coming to the United States and elsewhere.

The extent to which a GPS enabled smartphone can accurately determine location has greatly improved over the succeeding years. There are now 24 dedicated satellites in geosynchronous orbit around the earth that are part of the GPS Satellite Constellation.[6] Monitored and maintained by the United States Air Force GPS Systems Wing, the signals communicated by these satellites service the needs of both the civilian population and military. Depending on the device, there are two widely available types of implementations: GPS and A-GPS (assisted).

GPS in its traditional form utilizes multilateration to pinpoint a destination. This solution, still relatively unchanged from its original conceptual design, is predicated on the properties of time and distance.[7] As a navigation technique, it uses the principle of relative measurement with respect to distance and angle to construct a number of hyperbolic curves.[8] When overlaid on a defined two-dimensional space, an intersecting point is revealed that represents the origin of the GPS receiver. This “point” is commonly referred to as a “fix” among users of such devices, designating a position on the earth’s surface defined by a pair of geographic coordinates called latitude and longitude. Although this approach is sufficient for many situations, the assisted GPS technique can be substituted to accomplish the same objective but with inherent time savings and added precision. Found in most current smartphone applications, A-GPS complements the well established GPS technology with the data signals the device already receives from nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. Essentially adding another layer of information to the mathematical position calculation, this process has improved the ability of these devices to rapidly isolate smartphone users’ locations (i.e. enhancing the time-to-first-fix) as well as sustain their tracking in environments where GPS is known to suffer from the effects of tall buildings or other natural impediments interfering with line of sight to the sky.[9] Additionally, incorporating continuous data delivery over the cellular network results in a significant liberation of space on the devices themselves, allowing users to fill them with other media of more personal relevance.

Although uncommon, external receivers for some smartphones are still out on the market for commercial purposes. These connect via serial or Bluetooth to Java-enabled phones for interfacing with commercial navigation software.[10]


With an estimated 6.1 billion smartphone users in the world by the 2020, we are on track to exceed basic fixed line phone subscriptions in the coming years.[11] The impending obsolescence of these comparatively “wired” forms of technology, such as home phones, is a foreshadowing of the trend to come as wireless, hands-free, and remote become words that define the next generation of the technology industry. As the smartphone user base swells, so does the potential stakeholder contingents. Currently, when separated at the highest possible level, the principal groups of individuals that stand to gain or lose the most from smartphone technology equipped with GPS facilities during the next five to ten years are:

  • the poor and poverty stricken - individuals relying on their devices for access to food, water, shelter, and other resources -- the basic ingredients of life -- will derive exceptional benefit from having access to location information, especially in underdeveloped and third-world countries;[12][13]
  • mobile phone users - the demographic using outdated mobile phones will continue to shrink as more people transition to and find value in smartphone technology equipped with location services capable of being embedded on various software platforms to serve a seemingly infinite number of needs;[14][15]
  • software developers - the demand for proficient software developers with an understanding of user experience (UX/UI) knowledge to design new and innovative geolocation platforms will expand and more than likely grow concurrently with the smartphone user base;[16][17]
  • hardware developers - consistent with Moore’s Law and indicative of the history of digital technology to date, we can anticipate the next noteworthy innovation in location servicing on smartphones, including iterative updates to GPS in-device (front-end) or to the supporting infrastructure (backend), to roughly follow the same evolutionary arc (every 1.5 to 2 years);
  • social networks - location tagging and recommendations are becoming major components of the most popular online social platforms to display user activity;
  • advertising and marketing - as a consequence of the massive potential audience to whom firms can display marketing and advertise goods, capitalizing on digital spaces -- especially those facilitating user networking services where location can improve the user experience -- will remain a high priority; and
  • various commercial and industrial markets - lucrative returns in the form of economic monetization through the curation, analysis, and transformation of proprietary data resources will be achieved by those corporations that embrace the future promise of location technology.

Select societal and industrial stakeholders are evaluated and each is shown to have developed at least one pathway of dependence or critical business priority contingent on the information goods produced by location-based services. Their respective interactions and relevancy to the technology are multifaceted, but the shared characteristic among them all is a commitment to leverage the resulting informational opportunities in constructive ways for giving themselves or their business an edge they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Both the individual and society at large has much to gain from using this technology when it is broadly engaged with in responsible ways (i.e. design can change but relying on -- or expecting, ideally -- that a rational, fair-minded, and normative value approach is the adopted standard); however, this is not to say that it doesn’t come without its latent pitfalls when someone introduces a distorted ideology or chooses to put their immediate concerns ahead of others and sacrifices the health, robustness, and collective security of the system for a misguided and careless motive. Despite the innate breadth and scale over which location-based smartphones have the capacity to effect change, without the integrity of the preceding system related concerns, there will be low incentive on behalf of the system’s existing constituents to endorse its use, and by extension stimulate progress and demand for further improvements and feature enhancements.

Anticipating the ebbs and flows of the medium outside the five to ten-year timespan previously indicated are too difficult to conceive (see Moore’s Law). So for the previous analysis, a relatively narrow future was considered for evaluation.


A number of important legal doctrines have materialized from the prevalence of GPS-enabled smartphones. Despite the relative newness of the technology, legal precedents from the past have also managed to maintain their applicability regarding the administration of fundamental rights like privacy, security, and limiting the extent to which the federal government can intervene in citizens’ lives. To govern privacy on the device, with the goal in most circumstances to fortify the personal privacy of the user, restrictions in the form of federal laws have been put in place to guarantee (up to reasonable limits) the security of the owner. The prevalence of terrorist threats and criminal plots around the world, many of which are using smartphones, has demanded stricter legislation in many instances and therefore also opened the door for more governmental reach.[18] Much like how computer hackers can unlawfully acquire control over a remote computer’s webcam or microphone, familiarity with the appropriate methods can grant a third-party access to a smartphone’s GPS, even when it appears to be turned off.[19] As a result, understanding the technical and legal loopholes and comprehending the extent to which others can unlawfully or lawfully (with the proper clearance) penetrate our devices are important for mitigating risk and intelligently navigating the digital landscape.

Electronic Communication Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA)

Originally adopted to minimize the government’s means of wire tapping phone calls and any other electronic data transmission by a computer-aided medium. It was later amended by the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) of 1994, the USA Patriot Act (including reauthorization acts of 2006), and the FISA Amendments Act (2008).[20]

New York Times, “1986 Privacy Law if Outrun by the Web”

“...the Justice Department argued in court that cellphone users had given up the expectation of privacy about their location by voluntarily giving that information to carriers.”[21]

Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)

Passed during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the purpose of the CALEA was to sanction the Federal government the power of intercepting any telephone traffic by enforcing telecommunications carriers to design their equipment, facilities, and services in a manner conducive for this type of activity. As this was later expanded to include any VoIP and broadband Internet traffic as it saw fit, the implications of acquiring location information became a potentiality.[22]

USA Patriot Act

Federal government and law enforcement have traditionally required warrants for obtaining permission to search or exploit the informational content on a citizen’s personal device (see Rule 41); however, with the special powers granted by the Patriot Act, like the controversial National Security Letter (NSL) clause (18 U.S.C. § 2709), additional authority has been allocated to conduct just this type of activity when national security is believed to be at risk and there exists “probable cause” or “reasonable suspicion.”[23][24] Because the assessment is inherently one-sided with respect to the agencies and individuals within the government who possess ample clearance for carrying out the inquiry, the possibility of limited oversight and no independent review represents an area of ethical concern, or at the very least, a dangerous judicial precedent.

Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA, 1978) and Amendments Act (2008)

Widely known to have compromised the privacy of millions of innocent Americans, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA) is the legal grounds on which many of the mass surveillance programs revealed by Edward Snowden are based. As a number of U.S. telecommunication carriers were involved in supporting this operation, most notably AT&T, the opportunity to seize or monitor phone calls, e-mails, or other forms of electronic information and cellular data (ostensibly comprising the location information on some of these devices) was within the government’s grasp and for all intents and purposes, legally condoned.[25]

Fourth Amendment

Contrary to the questionable legal and ethical nuance present under the Patriot Act, the Fourth Amendment rights of the Constitution, guaranteed to every American citizen, protect the security of United States’ constituency from “unreasonable search and seizure.”[26] The very obvious overlapping conflict between these two laws has been a source of much debate and protest. Since there is a fine line that qualifies someone as posing a security “risk” to the country, many feel that the allocation of such power is unreasonable for any context, especially one lacking absolute factual omniscience. Whether it’s lack of situational certainty or the introduction of perverse motives at any stage of a warrant or NSL’s approval process, the costs to the privacy of innocent subjects remain a matter of grave importance.[27]

Third-party Doctrine

In accordance with United States legal theory, third-party doctrine states that with the voluntary release of personal information to a third-party (e.g. an Internet service provider), one forfeits their “reasonable expectation of privacy.”[28] Precedence for the doctrine originated in case of Katz v. United States where it was determined that any good knowingly introduced to the public -- informational or otherwise -- is no longer amenable to Fourth Amendment protection.[29] Having been cited in numerous contentious legal cases surrounding the collection of location data and other personal information, it serves to mediate the juncture of government and the individual insofar as what constitutes ownership when the digital world happens to intrinsically confuse the fundamental conception of the term.

Notable Cases from the News

U.S. v. Jones (Decided Jan. 23, 2012)

A Supreme Court ruling banning warrantless GPS search and surveillance by law enforcement through the act of attaching a GPS-enabled device to a vehicle for monitoring its whereabouts.[30] Although this case didn’t deal with location issues stemming from smartphone use, it set up an expectation for privacy leading into the U.S. v. Graham court decision occurring less than two months later; conflating a specific behavior and legal ruling on privacy meant that the court had a basis on which to make a more informed judgement, even if only for comparative purposes, with respect to a case dealing with a smartphone and the location information that it received and transmitted.

U.S. v. Graham (Decided Mar. 1, 2012)

A landmark case out of the Maryland District Court reached a verdict resolving that historical, long-term cell-site location information (CSLI) is not protected by rights conferred under the Fourth Amendment.[31] Upholding the plaintiff's argument that the circumstances of the case did not violate any “reasonable expectation of privacy” by invoking the third-party doctrine, the Defendant’s Motion to Suppress Evidence of historical CSLI was denied.[32]

Apple’s Letter to Customers (February, 2016)

In an unprecedented move, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) requested that Apple Inc., the well known tech giant responsible for the iPhone, unlock one of their devices (an iPhone 5C) belonging to a shooter from the San Bernardino terrorist attack that occurred on December 2, 2015 following unsuccessful attempts of their own to break the smartphone’s strong encryption. Citing the company’s guiding moral principles and fear that acquiescing to these ends would only do more harm than good in the long run, they declined cooperation. In a letter written to their customers and the public at large, Tim Cook -- Apple’s standing CEO -- said the following:

“Smartphones, led by iPhone, have become an essential part of our lives. People use them to store an incredible amount of personal information, from our private conversations to our photos, our music, our notes, our calendars and contacts, our financial information and health data, even where we have been and where we are going” (February 16, 2016).[33]

Since the publication of Cook’s letter on Apple’s website, various other prominent CEOs from the technology industry have endorsed his interpretation and ultimate decision on the matter noting the fact that it could be an unsafe precedent to set.[34]

Sources of Positive Utilization

Location Data for Emergency Responders

In a special addendum to the laws governing the third-party acquisition of location data from smartphones, emergency services are permitted to use this sensitive data for supporting first responders during an emergency situation.[citation needed]

Smartphone Applications

The population of smartphone applications is growing by the day. Delivered primarily through Apple’s iOS App Store (1.5M apps), Android’s Google Play (1.6M apps), and the Windows Phone Store (340K apps), the respective platforms showcase software solutions to many of life’s daily challenges.[35] The stunning growth and liquidity of this market is attracting new capital, individuals, and companies to the promise of quick profits. A relatively inexpensive method for distribution (via one of the respective companies’ digital storefronts) to a tremendous user volume with little overhead to speak of enhances the appeal of the business space.

A significant fraction of these smartphone apps include those that utilize the real time location of the device. Solving informational problems from navigating rush hour traffic, finding your car in a congested parking lot, to keeping track of your outdoor walks or runs are to the credit of these cunningly designed applications.[36] With many sellers offering completely free versions and the option to upgrade to a full-fledged paid variant if desired, the customer's barrier to entry is very low.

Ethical Implications and Pitfalls

Companies and Carriers Who Retain Location Data

Depending on the situation and the immediate policies and laws in question, software companies and telecommunication carriers may be authorized (either independently or through an external source) to store your location information. This is the principal ethical question to consider when it comes to location services and smartphone technology: Are these bodies of power deserving of this authority and to what ends should they be allowed to exercise it? Additional concerns and topics for contemplation include:

  • Default settings (i.e. opt-out rather than opt-in)
  • End user ignorance regarding safe technology practices
  • Permissions and security audits between a device’s OS and third-party apps to identify weak areas could mitigate the occurrence of unauthorized software exploits taking place without the customer’s knowledge

Differentiating Public and Private Spaces

At least in legal terms, the distinction between public and private is an important one. As was the case with U.S. v. Graham and invocation of the third-party doctrine. Further explication warranted.[citation needed]

Employer Location Tracking

Many careers and professional positions require a company supplied smartphone to handle all business related correspondence (e.g. e-mail, text, and voice). As such a device is normally paid for by one’s employer, there have been a handful of newsworthy scenarios where the said employer has assumed the liberty of tracking their staff to ensure proper adherence to company policy and worker productivity.[37] Infringing upon their privacy, regardless of the underlying legality of the behavior, is something that has the potential to annoy, frustrate, and even enrage the individuals who are affected. Consequently, many feel this issue should be clearly laid out during the hiring process to avoid unexpected revelations and be opened to a public forum for discussion.

External Links

See Also


  1. Webdesigner Depot: The Evolution of Cell Phone Design Between 1983-2009
  2. Wikipedia: Mobile phone - Introduction
  3. Wikipedia: Smartphone - Introduction
  4. [1] Retrieved on 2-20-2016
  5. Wikipedia: Twig Com - Introduction and History
  6. Federal Aviation Administration: GNSS Frequently Asked Questions - GPS
  7. How does GPS work?
  8. Multilateration: Executive Reference Guide, p. 8 (PDF)
  9. Columbia University: Geolocation and Assisted GPS (PDF)
  10. Wikipedia: GPS navigation device - Mobile phones with GPS capability
  11. TechCrunch: 6.1B Smartphone Users Globally By 2020, Overtaking Basic Fixed Phone Subscriptions
  12. The New York Times: Fighting Homelessness, One Smartphone at a Time
  13. Australian Communications and Media Authority: Homelessness and smartphones (DOC)
  14. GSMA Intelligence: From feature phones to smartphones, the road ahead
  15. Smartphones to overtake traditional cell phones, become the new 'standard'
  16. Application Resource Center from Applause: 5 Things Developers Need To Know About The Future Of The Apps Economy
  17. Computerworld: Your next job: Mobile app developer?
  18. Federal Bureau of Investigation: Are Technology, Privacy, and Public Safety on a Collision Course? (Speech transcript, 10-16-2014)
  19. Legal Resources: What Does the Law Say About Using Someone's Webcam or Computer Microphone to Spy on Them?
  20. Wikipedia: Electronic Communications Privacy Act
  21. [2] Retrieved on 2-20-2016
  22. Wikipedia: Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act
  23. Wikipedia: Patriot Act
  24. The Atlantic: The Messy Legal Status of Warrantless Cell Phone Location Tracking
  25. Wikipedia: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 Amendments Act of 2008
  26. Wikipedia: Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution
  27. Electronic Privacy Information Center - Locational Privacy
  28. Wikipedia: Third-party doctrine
  29. Wikipedia: Katz v. United States
  30. Wikipedia: U.S. v. Jones
  31. [3] Retrieved on 2-20-2016
  32. Wikipedia: U.S. v. Graham
  33. Apple: Customer Letter (2-16-2016)
  34. CNBC: Tech CEOs in support of Apple vs FBI
  35. Statista: Number of apps available in leading app stores as of July 2015
  36. Tom's Guide: 10 Best Location Aware Apps,review-2405.html
  37. PBS Newshour: Is your boss tracking your location from your smartphone?

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