February 1, 2023

Who Will Secure the Internet of Things?

Over the past several months, CITP-affiliated Ph.D. student Sarthak Grover and fellow Roya Ensafi been investigating various security and privacy vulnerabilities of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in the home network, to get a better sense of the current state of smart devices that many consumers have begun to install in their homes. To explore this question, […]

Supreme Court Takes Important GPS Tracking Case

This morning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal next term of United States v. Jones (formerly United States v. Maynard), a case in which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals suppressed evidence of a criminal defendant’s travels around town, which the police collected using a tracking device they attached to his car. For more background on the case, consult the original opinion and Orin Kerr’s previous discussions about the case.

No matter what the Court says or holds, this case will probably prove to be a landmark. Watch it closely.

(1) Even if the Court says nothing else, it will face the constitutionally of the use by police of tracking beepers to follow criminal suspects. In a pair of cases from the mid-1980’s, the Court held that the police did not need a warrant to use a tracking beeper to follow a car around on public, city streets (Knotts) but did need a warrant to follow a beeper that was moved indoors (Karo) because it “reveal[ed] a critical fact about the interior of the premises.” By direct application of these cases, the warrantless tracking in Jones seems constitutional, because it was restricted to movement on public, city streets.

Not so fast, said the D.C. Circuit. In Jones, the police tracked the vehicle 24 hours a day for four weeks. Citing the “mosaic theory often invoked by the Government in cases involving national security information,” the Court held that the whole can sometimes be more than the parts. Tracking a car continuously for a month is constitutionally different in kind not just degree from tracking a car along a single trip. This is a new approach to the Fourth Amendment, one arguably at odds with opinions from other Courts of Appeal.

(2) This case gives the Court the opportunity to speak generally about the Fourth Amendment and location privacy. Depending on what it says, it may provide hints for lower courts struggling with the government’s use of cell phone location information, for example.

(3) For support of its embrace of the mosaic theory, the D.C. Circuit cited a 1989 Supreme Court case, U.S. Department of Justice v. National Reporters Committee. In this case, which involved the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) not the Fourth Amendment, the Court allowed the FBI to refuse to release compiled “rap sheets” about organized crime suspects, even though the rap sheets were compiled mostly from “public” information obtainable from courthouse records. In agreeing that the rap sheets nevertheless fell within a “personal privacy” exemption from FOIA, the Court embraced, for the first time, the idea that the whole may be worth more than the parts. The Court noted the difference “between scattered disclosure of the bits of information contained in a rap-sheet and revelation of the rap-sheet as a whole,” and found a “vast difference between the public records that might be found after a diligent search of courthouse files, county archives, and local police stations throughout the country and a computerized summary located in a single clearinghouse of information.” (FtT readers will see the parallels to the debates on this blog about PACER and RECAP.) In summary, it found that “practical obscurity” could amount to privacy.

Practical obscurity is an idea that hasn’t gotten much traction in the Courts since National Reporters Committee. But it is an idea well-loved by many privacy scholars, including myself, for whom it helps explain their concerns about the privacy implications of data aggregation and mining of supposedly “public” data.

The Court, of course, may choose a narrow route for affirming or reversing the D.C. Circuit. But if it instead speaks broadly or categorically about the viability of practical obscurity as a legal theory, this case might set a standard that we will be debating for years to come.

Tracking Your Every Move: iPhone Retains Extensive Location History

Today, Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan revealed that Apple’s iPhone maintains an apparently indefinite log of its location history. To show the data available, they produced and demoed an application called iPhone Tracker for plotting these locations on a map. The application allows you to replay your movements, displaying your precise location at any point in time when you had your phone. Their open-source application works with the GSM (AT&T) version of the iPhone, but I added changes to their code that allow it to work with the CDMA (Verizon) version of the phone as well.

When you sync your iPhone with your computer, iTunes automatically creates a complete backup of the phone to your machine. This backup contains any new content, contacts, and applications that were modified or downloaded since your last sync. Beginning with iOS 4, this backup also included is a SQLite database containing tables named ‘CellLocation’, ‘CdmaCellLocaton’ and ‘WifiLocation’. These correspond to the GSM, CDMA and WiFi variants of location information. Each of these tables contains latitude and longitude data along with timestamps. These tables also contain additional fields that appear largely unused on the CDMA iPhone that I used for testing — including altitude, speed, confidence, “HorizontalAccuracy,” and “VerticalAccuracy.”

Interestingly, the WifiLocation table contains the MAC address of each WiFi network node you have connected to, along with an estimated latitude/longitude. The WifiLocation table in our two-month old CDMA iPhone contains over 53,000 distinct MAC addresses, suggesting that this data is stored not just for networks your device connects to but for every network your phone was aware of (i.e. the network at the Starbucks you walked by — but didn’t connect to).

Location information persists across devices, including upgrades from the iPhone 3GS to iPhone 4, which appears to be a function of the migration process. It is important to note that you must have physical access to the synced machine (i.e. your laptop) in order to access the synced location logs. Malicious code running on the iPhone presumably could also access this data.

Not only was it unclear that the iPhone is storing this data, but the rationale behind storing it remains a mystery. To the best of my knowledge, Apple has not disclosed that this type or quantity of information is being stored. Although Apple does not appear to be currently using this information, we’re curious about the rationale for storing it. In theory, Apple could combine WiFi MAC addresses and GPS locations, creating a highly accurate geolocation service.

The exact implications for mobile security (along with forensics and law enforcement) will be important to watch. What is most surprising is that this granularity of information is being stored at such a large scale on such a mainstream device.