It’s no secret that the ability to track a cell phone has led to a sea change in law enforcement surveillance methods. But now a pair of researchers have actually put a number to the plummeting cost of that covert spying in the modern world: Tracking a cell phone’s location, they found, costs somewhere between 1.9% and .015 % of the price of tailing someone the old fashioned way.
In a paper published Thursday in the Yale Law Journal, privacy-focused researchers Ashkan Soltani and Kevin Bankston have calculated the per-hour cost to law enforcement of tracking a person’s location using every method from officers on foot to police-planted GPS devices to obtaining the suspect’s location from their cell carrier. The results show that the cost of 24/7 surveillance operations have been reduced from hundreds of dollars an hour to employ teams of agents to track individuals in shifts to just a few dollars or even just pennies to query AT&T or Sprint for the same location data. ...
With their study, the researchers intend to show that cell phone tracking, like GPS tracking, is so cheap that it enables surveillance on a massive scale. In fact, their paper deduces a “rule of thumb” from the Jones ruling and other lower-court rulings to determine when location tracking without a warrant should be considered unconstitutional: “If the new tracking technique is an order of magnitude less expensive than the previous technique, the technique violates expectations of privacy and runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment,” they write.
That means cell phone tracking, which is often even cheaper than the warrantless GPS tracking the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Jones, require the same level of privacy regulations if not more, Soltani argues. “When it was physically impossible to track everyone at the same time, you didn’t need a law for it,” he says. “What we’re saying is that technology changes what’s possible, and as a result, we may need to add legal barriers to compensate for those changing technical barriers.”
Read Soltani and Bankston’s full paper here.