National Geographic reporter Bryan Christy commissioned two fake elephant tusks embedded with GPS, then planted them to track ivory smuggling routes from the Central African Republic into Sudan. Read the rest
If you've got a major-brand camera with a built-in GPS, don't plan on taking any geotagged photos in China. Chinese law prohibits mapmaking without a license, and most of the large camera manufacturers have complied with this regulation by quietly slipping a censorship function into the GPS -- when you take a picture, the camera checks to see if it's presently in China, and if it is, it throws away its GPS data, rather than embedding it in the photo's metadata. On Ogle Earth, Stefan Geens looks at how several different manufacturers handle this weirdness -- how they phrase it in their manuals, and what their cameras do when they run up against this limitation. It's a fascinating look at the interface between consumer electronics, user interface, and the edicts of totalitarian regimes. In some Nikon cameras, for example, the GPS does work, but all its measurements are shifted about 500m to the west (!).
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Why does all this matter? Wherever local laws prohibit the sale or use of a personal electronics device able to perform a certain function, manufacturers have traditionally chosen not to sell the offending device in that particular jurisdiction, or — if the market is tempting enough — to sell a crippled model made especially for that jurisdiction.
For example, Nokia chose not to sell the N95 phone in Egypt when the sale of GPS-enabled devices there was illegal before 2009, whereas Apple opted to make and sell a special GPS-less iPhone 3G for that market. Early models of the Chinese iPhone 3GS lacked wifi, while the Chinese iPhone 4/4S has firmware restrictions on its Google Maps app.
A recent US Supreme Court ruling that overturned the warrantless use of GPS tracking devices "has caused a 'sea change' inside the U.S. Justice Department." Following the ruling, the FBI turned off an estimated 3,000 GPS tracking devices that were in use. But how to locate the little buggers to take them home?
These devices were often stuck underneath cars to track the movements of the car owners. In U.S. v. Jones, the Supreme Court ruled that using a device to track a car owner without a search warrant violated the law.
After the ruling, the FBI had a problem collecting the devices that it had turned off, Mr. Weissmann said. In some cases, he said, the FBI sought court orders to obtain permission to turn the devices on briefly – only in order to locate and retrieve them.
SpyFiles, a new project from Wikileaks and several partner organization, is based on 287 secret documents revealing a campaign of mass spying on users of webmail, GPS, and mobile devices, with this data being sold in a covert, 25-nation global marketplace that Wikileaks claims is worth $5 billion. At present, the underlying documents are not available (Wikileaks is withholding them as part of a fundraising drive), but an interactive map showing the spying on a nation-by-nation basis is up and running, and there's a page showing the press reportage on the map.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation are asking the Supreme Court to ban the practice of using warrantless GPS-based bugs to track citizens' movements. They've just been joined in their appeal by Roger L. Easton, the principal inventor of GPS technology.
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Roger L. Easton is considered the father of GPS as the principal inventor and developer of the Timation Satellite Navigation System at the Naval Research Laboratory. The current GPS is based on Timation, and its principles of operation are fundamentally identical. In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court Monday in United States v. Jones, EFF, Mr. Easton, along with other technology experts, pointed out the many ways in which GPS tracking is fundamentally different from and more invasive than other surveillance technologies the court has allowed before, and how law enforcement use of GPS without a warrant violates Americans' reasonable expectations of privacy.
"This is the first case where the Supreme Court will consider automatic, persistent, passive location tracking by law enforcement," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann. "The government can use location information over time to learn where you go to church, what sort of doctors you go to, what meetings and activities you participate in, and much more. Police should not have blanket permission to install GPS devices and collect detailed information about people's movements over time without court review."
In Jones, FBI agents planted a GPS device on a car while it was on private property. Agents then used the GPS to track the position of the vehicle every ten seconds for a full month without obtaining a search warrant.