GPS: A stalker's best friend

Watch out for common ways that a creeper can follow you by using the same GPS devices you love so much.

Mobile Spy

Some tracking programs, like the pay-as-you-go AccuTracking software from AccuTracking Inc, can be downloaded to a cell phone. After activating the software, the tracker can determine the location of the phone at any moment by logging in online. The scary thing about AccuTracking is that the person using it can run it in "covert" mode, which renders it undetectable by anyone who doesn't already know it's there. AccuTracking forums member hsp2072 voiced his suspicion on the site's forums, saying that his ex-wife had given him a cell phone as a Father's Day gift and that he suspected "she had this tracking stuff installed in it before she gave it to me." Yikes.

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An AccuTracking software preview.

Someone could take a cell phone, install the program, and give it back to the owner without leaving any sign that the software had been downloaded and activated, as London Guardian columnist Dr. Ben Goldacre proved when he tested the software out on his girlfriend's phone. He had easy online access to her every location, in real time.

The Associated Press reported in April 2009 that James Harrison of Graham, Washington, tracked his wife by using her cell phone's GPS feature after he suspected her of infidelity. He found her with another man and, in a rage, killed his five children and himself later that night.

Smartphone Maps and Apps

Aside from friend-location software for smartphones, map-based apps can divulge considerably more information than just where you had lunch. Sites like Foursquare, a game in which you log your location to gain rewards from bars, restaurants, and shops that you visit, and Postabon, where you post shopping deals as you see them, have corresponding apps for posting updates on-the-go from your smartphone.

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A geotagged photo, as presented on Picasa.

When you post to these sites, a geotagged map specifies the location of the place you are referencing. A person could easily find you through Foursquare, check which places you've logged into, and spot a link to your Facebook and Twitter presences, depending on what your security settings are.

If you use the new Google Buzz service on your smartphone, you've probably seen the map that pops up after you buzz. There you are--a bubble-marked dot on a map, surrounded by other dots linked to what other users have buzzed about in your immediate vicinity. So you can see, for instance, that John Doe was at the pizza place across the street, and that Jane Smith was meeting a friend right around the corner. And because Google encourages users to provide their first and last name to boost their public index, a particular person's footprints are even more noticeable.

Though it offers a legitimate (and cool) way to organize photos and posts, geotagging is also a stalker's dream function. When you geotag a Tweet, a review, a post, or a photo, metadata logs the exact time when that piece of data was captured and the exact geographical location where it was captured.

A follower with serious boundary issues might plug that information into Google Maps to get a street-view location, so be careful with the data you include with photos that you plan to share online.

Crushing the Teen Dream

GPS tracking is not just for weirdos. Concerned parents may be tempted to enlist the technology to keep track of their children's whereabouts.

This is fine if the goal is to be able to rescue your child in the unlikely (think odds of getting struck by lightning) event that a stranger kidnaps them--or for that matter, if you warn your child about the tracking setup in advance, and everyone treats it as a safety measure rather than as a spying operation--but what about surreptitiously snooping in on your teen when she gets behind the wheel? A 2006 article in the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Paige White, then 17, was busted by her parents for going to a party after she had told them her destination was a friend's house. Her parents had installed a CarChip in her car, which logged the routes she drove, her mileage per trip, her driving speed, and her driving tendencies, such as sudden stops and fast turns.

Safety

Under normal circumstances mapping and GPS technologies are safe, fun, and helpful for sharing data, simplifying navigation, and planning meet-ups with friends and family. But if you suspect that you have a stalker on your hands, it's important to take safety precautions and to notify the authorities about what's going on.

In the meantime, pay attention to privacy settings in your digital profiles, don't allow strangers to add you to their Google Latitude list, and watch out for creeps.

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Leah Yamshon

PC World (US online)
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