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Can Your GPS Be A Privacy Risk?

By on August 7, 2013

Whenever you’re on the road, you can glance over and see many cars with a GPS attached to windshield.  Even when you don’t see the GPS, it could be that the car came with one imbedded in the dashboard.  More and more people are using their GPSs to not only guide them to their destinations, but also to tell them if there is a traffic jam that could be avoided or when they will arrive.  When I’m taking a road trip, there are times when I know exactly where I’m going, but like to see my ETA so I can let the people I’m meeting know when I’ll get there.

Many drivers view the GPS as a trusted friend who guides us to where we want to go.  But, like a trusted friend, the GPS knows many things about the driver that some people would gladly use. In the wrong hands, the GPS could lead us to danger and cause us to surrender our privacy.  You might ask, “How is this possible?” Let me demonstrate the danger with a little story:

It’s your wife’s birthday and you decide to surprise her with a weekend in the new luxury hotel/casino that she has been admiring since it was built.  You arrange for the kids to stay with your parents for a couple of days and you have bags packed, ready to go. Even though the hotel/casino is close by, you’re not really sure how to get there, so you program the in-dash GPS to show you the best route to take.

As you drive up to the valet station, your wife is so excited!  You know you made the right choice of “gift”.   The valet is very friendly as he opens your wife’s door so she could get out of the car, welcoming her to the casino.   He asks how long you will be staying, but he already knows that you will be there for at least a day or two judging by your bags.   You confirm his estimate of a couple of days, as you and your wife go inside to check in and get settled before you start your weekend of fun.  What you don’t know is that the valet you handed your car to lied to get his job; he actually has a criminal record and he sees you as his next victim.  It didn’t take him long to check out your car to know that you are “locals”.  Now, all he needs to do is power up your GPS and look in your saved “Favorites” list to find one marked “Home”.

Now that this ex-con knows your home address and that you will be staying at the hotel for a couple of nights, all he has to do is wait for his shift to end.  Tonight, he may hit the jackpot, but it won’t be at the casino; it will be in your house.

Just before his shift is over, the valet has one last car to park.  He also wants to check your GPS one more time to see if there’s any other information he can find.  He goes through the list and sees that you have the names and addresses of your kids’ schools.  You even have the addresses where your sons go to basketball practice and your daughter goes to dance classes. He also sees that you own a local business and takes down that address, also.  It could be that you closed up shop for the weekend.

Armed with a lot of information about you, the valet sets off to his “night job”.  First, he goes to your shop to see if it will be opened during your stay at the hotel.  It’s just as he thought; closed until Monday morning. The shop is full of classic comic books and other collectibles. He stands by the window pretending to be interested in something inside, but he’s really looking to see what is in this shop that he could make some fast money on.  Inside, he sees figurines of all the classic characters:  Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Wolverine and every other character he grew up with.  Nostalgia isn’t what he’s interested in, though.  He’s seeing dollar signs, because these things are worth a fortune!  He may even be able to snatch a few of the more expensive ones and fix the rest so that you don’t immediately realize that your store was robbed.  While he’s scanning the shop, he’s also looking for an alarm system.  He finds it, and it’s one he’s very familiar with, so he won’t have a problem with police.

The next stop the crook makes is to your home.  The first thing he’s looking for are surveillance cameras.  He doesn’t see any, so he knows he can take his time later when he goes back.  Right now, it’s still light outside, and if neighbors see him stalking around the house, they might get suspicious and call the police.  This is one thief who is going to have a very profitable weekend.

Now, keep in mind that this crook not only has your address, but he knows where your kids go to school and where they are for basketball practices and dance classes.  If being a thief isn’t all he is, your kids are now in very serious danger.  You didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but just a small amount of carelessness can do a large amount of harm.

Perhaps you have other information in the GPS that you don’t want people knowing about you.  From the addresses in your “Favorites”, can someone see that you are seeing a mental health professional?  Would they know which physicians you’re seeing or where your attorney and bank are located?  Do you have the address of your country or beach house in your GPS?  There are so many things to think about.  Who knew that a simple GPS could say so much?

So, what do you do?  Give up your GPS?  Not at all.  You just need to be more careful.  Always remember to take your portable GPS with you whenever you leave your car and to lock your in-dash GPS with a password so no one else can “listen” to what it has to say.

By Alicia Szot