Monday, July 13, 2009

Electronic tracking makes its way into family law cases

''We are moving into a world where your location is going to be known at all times by some electronic device,'' said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology. ''It's inevitable. So we should be talking about its consequences before it's too late.''

Today I am going to address issues of electronic tracking of your whereabouts and what steps you should take to protect yourself. Electronic tracking comes in many formats and can be readily accessed by the government or other people, often through subpoena or other surreptitious ways.

Cell Phones -

In 2008 Dennis Mullendore went on trial for the alleged shotgun slaying of his estranged wife along a stretch of Interstate 865 in the southern portion of Boone County. During the trial the prosecution called as a witness a representative of Sprint cellular service who testified as to the technical capabilities of cellular phones and towers to track the location of the phone.

Essentially a cell phone tower emits and receives signals in three directions covering an approximate 120 degree range each. The witness testified that when there are overlapping coverage areas the cellular phone will attach itself to the strongest signal. Cell phone towers have a range of approximately 5 miles. Thus, through accessing the records of the tower activity it can be determined where a cell phone is located to within just a few miles such as a three mile stretch of interstate.

If the phone can connect to one antenna, it can calculate a very rough approximation of the user’s position to within a few miles. If it gets a signal from two antennas, it can hone in much further, but if it’s in touch with three or more cell sites it can plot almost the exact location by measuring the distance from each site and using a process known as “triangulation” to find the users within a pretty close range.

Ultimately, Mullendore's contention that he was not in the area and therefore could not have been the one who either drove the vehicle or was the passenger in the vehicle was not persuasive to the jury and Mullendore was convicted of First Degree Murder. With the new FCC's wireless 911 rules pinpointing your exact location will now be commonplace. The question isn’t whether you can be found, but how that information will be used and who will have access to it.

When the system is fully implemented, 911 operators will know your longitude and latitude, which is a good thing if you need help and can’t report your exact location. However there seems to be no rule limiting that technology for emergency services only. In fact, there are numerous commercial services that are already offering this E911 location technology.

While there are benefits to these technologies, there are also dangers. My reason for bringing this to your attention is not to help you plan or escape from a murder scene undetected. I want to focus on issues on how this tracking technology is related to family law courts. In child custody or support proceedings there could be issues raised as to allegations of ones whereabouts whether visiting a bar or doing additional work on a farm. In a highly contentious custody proceeding a lawyer could seek cell phone records to show a parties whereabouts. A GPS map could detail exactly where and when you were at particular locations. Arguments can be made as to which parent is selecting the safest driving routes or times with children which is in their best interest.

Do not be assuaged that simply carrying the cell phone turned off keeps you from being tracked. The government has technology that allows your receiver on a cell phone to stay open even when your phone is 'disconnected'. This allows them to listen to the ambient sound around your phone including any conversations you may be having in person. The best way to avoid having your phone track you is through not carrying it. Alternatively the phone should be carried without the battery in it. This is just one technology and one reason why cell phones should not be carried on your person.

GPS car tracker

This device, which has a self-contained power unit or can be connected to your vehicle's power source, is added primarily as a safety device and is part of the internal operating system of the vehicle. A GPS car tracker can let you know where your car is, the direction of travel and the speed of travel. One of the main reasons that people install these is to lower their insurance premiums. Insurance companies are impressed by only one thing: lowering their risk. A GPS car tracker does just that, so you will be able to realize a deduction in your premiums.

A record is made of all movements of the GPS device. This provides an additional benefit. If you are involved in a collision the GPS data could be used to show the exact movements of your vehicle prior to the collision. These records could also show if you were at a location you claimed not to be or could imply that you were not where you said you were. All it takes to get these records is a simple subpoena to the record holder; your service provider.

In addition to the professionally installed devices are those that are placed somewhere on the exterior of the vehicle and used by someone whom you may not want knowing your whereabouts. This includes ex spouses, stalkers, pedophiles or any other people whom for whatever reason want to know when and where you are.


Radio frequency identification chips went through a period of testing on cats and dogs early in the first part of this decade. After successful test on animals they are now being installed in humans. Five years ago Florida-based Applied Digital Solutions received FDA approval to start marketing the chip for use as a medical record storing device. Just as in science-fiction movies the rice grain sized device is installed just under the skin. As is passes by a reader the data is read from it.

Although more limited in scope the RFID can also be used to track your location when passing by a reader. As time passes more employers are requiring RFID chips to replace name badges and key cards for access to offices. The opportunities for misuse of this technology probably exceed that of the others as data may also be added to this chip without your knowledge.

For more on RFID please read this article.

Like cell phones, other technologies such as laptop PCs, PDAs and Internet phones can track your location through GPS technology. When in possession of any of these electronic technologies I hope you will keep in mind how they can be used against you and that you will take some precautions against having that happen.

When traveling batteries should be removed from cell phones and any other wireless devices including laptop computers with built-in wireless cards. GPS devices should not be used on your vehicle. If you have one you should remove it although in some vehicles this may require replacing the wiring harness if it is integrated into the electrical system. In the alternative you can use lead to block signals. A lead-lined box that your devices can be placed into while traveling would be sufficient to maintain your privacy and keep electronic snoops and hackers from knowing your movements.

Anyone who has been regularly involved in child custody proceedings knows that there are parties who will go to any length to challenge the other. Electronic tracking devices can be used to show where the children are, what time they return to the house, did you drive through a gang infested neighborhood, were you actually at the park with the children and many other situations that can be used against you in court.

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