The Technium

As Much Privacy As You Can Afford

What we call privacy — the non-disclosure or transmission of information — is ultimately a matter of economics. To remain hidden in a connected world will cost money. You can always disconnect, but while connected you will be transparent. Under this regime transparency is cheap and ubiquitous, while opacity expensive.

Apparently there is a service that will provide the current location of any cell phone for $95. You give Best411 the phone number you seek and $95 and then they will tell you where that cell phone is located is between 9am and 5pm CST.


How is this possible? Obviously the cell phone company knows because it has to track your cell in order to deliver calls. But how does Best411 know? They claim:

We are a state-licensed private investigative agency and, as such, have access to many data bases that the general public is not permitted to access.

That doesn’t really explain the deal, or the legality, or the process. My immediate question is: Why does it cost so much? Why $95? Technologically this is a trivial query. It’s real cost is about zero. I wonder who or what is setting the price?

Second question: If I were willing to pay $100 could I prevent Best411 from tracking me? How much would it cost to have my location “unlisted”?

I am really asking the larger question of how expensive will it become to be unlocateble in the location-aware mobile future?

If anyone knows how Best411 and their kin work, I’d love to hear about it. I am sure it is sleazy, but is there any reason it will remain marginal?

  • gmoke

    Don’t forget that OnStar and EasyPass systems also can tell where your car is at any particular point in time. If memory serves, OnStar can even shut down the engine remotely.

  • Iggy Cognito

    I agree with Paul and Jeff.

    It costs $0 to turn your cell phone off or leave it at home.

    • @Iggy: Yes, obviously you can’t be traced if you own no phone or leave it off. That’s why I said one solution is to “disconnect.” The puzzle arises in whether you can be unlisted while connected.

  • Aaron Davies

    @crosbie: i have for several years now had as my slashdot sig a line from another slashdot poster that struck me as particularly pithy: “Media that can be recorded and distributed can be recorded and distributed.”

  • Bharat Sharma

    If the phone is switched off but has battery connected then I presume that 911 can still track it.

    In this case so can Best411.

    The solution is to take out the battery.

  • no one

    what if the first cell phone # is forwarded via google voice or equivalent service to a 2nd cell phone# ? does the 2nd number get back to the caller, or remain unknown to them?

  • Crosbie Fitch

    You cannot both broadcast your location AND prevent your location becoming public knowledge.

    Similarly, you cannot both publish an intellectual work AND prevent it being freely copied.

    These are a couple of natural laws of information that people are going to have to get to grips with.

    Canute can pass laws to the contrary (viz UK’s Digital Economy Bill), but that doesn’t actually hold back the tide of diffusion.

  • Crosbie Fitch

    What you could do however, would be to broadcast the location of an unknown phone, whose number you disclose to a FEW of your confidants – you then have to have CONFIDENCE in their discretion concerning the number’s association with a phone you are likely to be carrying.

    You can’t disclose a secret AND prevent it being disclosed by those you tell it to (unless you’re the sort that tells their secret plans to the likes of James Bond as he’s lowered into a tank of piranhas).

  • Paul

    Couldn’t you just turn it off?

  • Jeff

    Simple solution: if you’re going to cheat on your suspicious spouse, who might use such a service, leave your cell phone in the office.

  • blakdawg

    There are no secret PI-only databases. There are databases whose commercial terms (pricing, contract length, etc) make them infeasible for consumers; and the sellers may be wary of giving access to people who haven’t been through some level of screening because of potential liability. That being said, the legality of the database access depends on FCRA, GLBA, and other laws about database privacy.

    I’ll bet dollars to donuts that the service described here is really an ex-cop with friends still on the force who will abuse their law-enforcement only access in exchange for a cut of the fee. It makes absolutely no sense to imagine that the cell carriers are cooperating with some third-party database provider to give them real-time location information so that the third party can resell it to people like Best411 who then resell it to you.

    The next most plausible explanation is that someone’s figured out how to get this information out of the cellphone system without permission from the carriers and they just resell it.

    In neither case is this likely to be legal, or to last long if it’s widely exposed.

  • Ken Muldrew

    At a surveillance conference last October, Chris Soghoiain noted an astonishing admission from a manager with Sprint, “Sprint Nextel provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.” The cost was reported to be about $150/request at the time.

    This was widely publicized in December of last year. Extrapolating to the other telecoms gives a figure of about 40-50 million instances of warrantless surveillance each year in the U.S. Since there was very little pushback from the citizens to curb this practice, one supposes that the telecoms decided to expand this business opportunity to the general public. After all, there is nothing special about surveillance by law enforcement unless they have a warrant (which they do not in this case).