Don't want your smartphone tracked? Don't go to San Diego

By Michael Carney , written on August 13, 2014

From The News Desk

Since smartphones are increasingly integrated into our everyday lives, they make a tantalizing tool for precise tracking.

Talk about an understatement.

The sadly accurate statement above comes from a frightening article on smartphone tracking written by founder Michael Robertson in The Voice of San Diego today. The piece discusses a new method of bluetooth tracking used in San Diego – and also by other local and federal government bodies – that has major implications on the privacy of law abiding citizens.

Like many other data collection methods called into question by privacy watchdogs, the Blufax sensor system in question collects and stores the data of all bluetooth-enabled devices within range – smartphones, tablets, wireless headsets, media players, wearable devices, and so forth – not just those belonging to individuals believed to be breaking the law. Specifically, Bluefax scanners allow law enforcement to obtain the MAC ID, user ID (often a name or email address), location, and timestamp of passing devices.

Collect this data across many locations within a city and you get a pretty clear map of peoples’ movements. San Diego has thus far deployed 16 Bluefax units and plans to install them in every freeway call box in the city, according to The Voice. And the city is not alone.

What’s even more frightening is that this smartphone data – which is loosely personally identifiable – is often combined with other data like license plate scans or readings from toll tag transponders to develop an even more revealing picture of a citizen’s identity and movements.

Robertson submitted a California Public Records Act request to the San Diego Association of Governments and got only limited information in return, mostly through heavily redacted documents. As such, it’s unclear just how much data the city is collecting via Bluefax and how its combining this data with other information to track citizens.

San Diego is already known to be building a database of license plate scans to track citizens’ travel. It’s not a huge leap to think that bluetooth scanning data would be used to further refine this picture. The city claims that the Bluefax units are meant to help the city measure traffic speed and congestion. The Voice’s has since filed a lawsuit seeking additional information this information and has a September court date.

As scary as the above may sound, there’s a lot we don’t know about how San Diego and other agencies are using Bluefax. There are legitimate uses for this technology and law enforcement and public safety are among them. But it’s when secrecy and deception are added to the mix that it’s time to stand up and ask hard questions.

The Voice of San Diego bills itself as “a member-based nonprofit investigative news organization that gives concerned citizens the tools they need to engage in important conversations about their community.” Robertson’s report today is the kind of civic engagement that we could use more of.

— Michael Robertson (@mp3michael) August 13, 2014 [Image via GPSInsights]