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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 (!).
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.
The risk to consumers in freer countries is that personal electronics brands might be tempted to simplify their manufacturing processes by building just one device for the global market, catering to the lowest common denominator of freedom — especially if the more restrictive legal jurisdictions contain some of the most attractive markets, such as mainland China.
Still, in the absence of more information from Panasonic, Leica, FujiFilm, Nikon and Samsung, I can’t decisively say whether this is the business logic behind their decision to cripple the GPS in their cameras. And yet uncrippled GPS cameras from Sony and others are freely available for sale in China, for example on Taobao, China’s eBay...
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.
As the fight over the warrantless placing of GPS trackers on suspects' cars continues, Americans continue to discover hidden GPS trackers. Wired's looked at these before, and today they've got the story of "Greg," a young man in San Jose, California, who found not one, but two warrantless trackers on his SUV.
The 25-year-old resident of San Jose, California, says he found the first one about three weeks ago on his Volvo SUV while visiting his mother in Modesto, about 80 miles northeast of San Jose. After contacting Wired and allowing a photographer to snap pictures of the device, it was swapped out and replaced with a second tracking device. A witness also reported seeing a strange man looking beneath the vehicle of the young man’s girlfriend while her car was parked at work, suggesting that a tracking device may have been retrieved from her car...
Greg says he discovered the first tracker on his vehicle after noticing what looked like a cell phone antenna inside a hole on his back bumper where a cable is stored for towing a trailer. The device, the size of a mobile phone, was not attached to a battery pack, suggesting the battery was embedded in its casing...
On Tuesday, Nov. 1, Wired photographer Jon Snyder went to San Jose to photograph the device. The next day, two males and one female appeared suddenly at the business where Greg’s girlfriend works, driving a Crown Victoria with tinted windows. A witness reported to Greg that one of the men jumped out of the car, bent under the front of the girlfriend’s car for a few seconds, then jumped back into the Crown Victoria and drove off. Wired was unable to confirm the story.
There was no writing on the tracker to identify its maker, but a label on the battery indicated that it’s sold by a small firm in Farmingdale, New York, called Revanche. A notice on a government web site last June indicates that it was seeking 500 of the batteries and 250 battery chargers for the Drug Enforcement Administration. A separate notice on the same site in 2008 refers to a contract for what appears to be a similar Revanche battery. The notice indicates the batteries work with GPS devices made by Nextel and Sendum.
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.
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. An appeals court ruled that the surveillance was unconstitutional without a warrant, but the government appealed the decision.
(Image: Caught Spying on Student, FBI Demands GPS Tracker Back, Wired.com)